Oseola McCarty

Oseola McCarty died on September 27, 1999 in Hattiesburg, a town in Mississippi, in the southern United States. She was 91 years old. Although she was a small, delicate woman, Oseola had worked hard as a washerwoman all her life. She took in clothes for laundering and ironing from many people in the town. She seldom left her small house except to go to church or to buy groceries. She always saved money, a dollar or two at a time, and by the time she was 87, she had US$150,000 in the bank. Because she was getting close to the end of her life and didn’t need the money for anything, she decided to give almost all of it away. She used the money to establish a scholarship fund to help poor students in Mississippi get a university education.

At the time, she said, “I’m giving it away so that the children won’t have to work so hard, like I did.” Even though she made her gift in preparation for her death, Oseola’s generosity threw her into a new way life, very different from the one she had been leading for so long.

She quickly became famous. She was honoured by the United Nations. She shook hands with Bill Clinton, the US President, and received the Presidential Citizen’s Medal from him. She received an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. In 1996, she carried the Olympic torch through part of Mississippi. And in the same year she flicked the switch that dropped the ball in New York City’s New Year’s Eve celebration. She said that was the first time in her life she had stayed up past midnight. And, of course, while she was doing all these things, she did other things she had never done before like flying in planes and staying in hotels. (Before leaving her hotel room, she always made the bed.)

The American public loved Oseola. At airports she was always surrounded by admirers, and people reached out to touch her as she went by. Although she had not expected this sort of attention, she enjoyed it very much. She felt it made up for all the loneliness she had been through.

She also inspired others to be generous. Over 600 other people made contributions, totalling $330,000, to the scholarship fund Oseola started. And when he heard about what she had done, the multi-billionaire, Ted Turner gave one billion dollars. He said, “If that little woman can give away everything she has, then I can give a billion.”

- information from the New York Times, 99.09.28