Released July 23, 1996

Oseola McCarty's Gift Keeps Right on Giving
By Sharon Wertz

HATTIESBURG -- Oseola McCarty never set out to get attention.

When on July 26, 1995, the quiet, 87-year-old washerwoman gave $150,000 to The University of Southern Mississippi, it never occurred to her she had done anything remarkable.

"I was surprised," says McCarty of the international media frenzy that, a year later, continues to swirl around her gift. "I wish I'd had a tablet to write it all down, but I didn't know I was going to have all this to remember. I just thought it (the attention) would go up and down in a few days."

It hasn't. Since signing an irrevocable trust agreement to give the bulk of her life's savings for scholarships for needy students, with preference to blacks, McCarty has been honored by:

* President Clinton with the Presidential Citizens Medal at the White House

* Harvard University with an honorary doctoral degree

* the National Urban League with the Community Heroes Award

* UNESCO with its Avicenna Medal. (The organization wanted to give it to her in Paris; but when she refused to fly, they came to Hattiesburg.)

* the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged Inc. with their Living Legacy Award

* the National Federation of Black Women Business Owners with their Premier Black Woman of Courage Award

* J.C. Penney and Essence Magazine with their 1996 Essence Award

* the Aetna Foundation with its Achiever Award

* AARP with its 1996 Andrus Award

* being chosen to carry the Olympic torch

McCarty, a small, stooped woman who washed and ironed other people's clothes for more than 75 years, was spotlighted on a Barbara Walters CBS-TV special as one of "The 10 Most Fascinating People of 1995." She was featured on every major TV network, on the front page of the New York Times and in nearly every major U.S. newspaper and magazine, as well as many foreign publications and TV.

The rights have been sold for a book on McCarty's life, which is expected out in November. And the awards -- or "rewards," as McCarty calls them -- are still coming. So are the gifts, cards and letters.

No small gifts

Now, it is a more talkative McCarty who leads a visitor to the dining table in her modest home, left to her by an uncle in 1947. The table is piled with white plastic bags and boxes, topped by a white crocheted afghan made for her by an admirer.

A curly gray wig now covers McCarty's straight, gray hair, and she is full of stories about her experiences of the past year.

During that year, McCarty, who had been outside Mississippi

only once in her first 87 years, traveled to New York City five times, Washington, D.C., three times, and to Denver, Colo.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Cambridge, Mass.; Atlanta, Memphis and many other cities.

"I've enjoyed all of it," she says. "I can't tell you how much I enjoyed everything -- the traveling and the scenery... and I've met so many wonderful people."

Afraid to fly, she at first insisted on taking the train. Finally persuaded to fly by her traveling companion, Jewel Tucker (USM President Aubrey Lucas' administrative secretary), she now says, "I liked flying fine. It was real good."

She also likes the change in herself.

"I used to wouldn't talk," she says, her soft drawl compelling close attention. "I hardly ever said anything. I lived by myself and didn't have anybody to talk to. But I really enjoy talking now, and I'm more braver than I was."

She opens a box and proudly displays a large framed picture -- "Miss Oseola's Gift" -- sent by a New Jersey artist.

"See the iron and the white shirt," she says, pointing, "and there is a basket of clothes ... and some clothespins and clothesline ... and see, there's a rub board."

There also is a small painting of a sweet potato pie -- "my favorite pie," she says.

She unfolds a letter that accompanied the paintings.

"Please accept these works of art that I exhibited in New Jersey where I live," wrote artist Russell A. Murray. "Your act of faith and giving was an inspiration to me."

Murray's gifts and letter are among hundreds McCarty has received since news of her gift was made public. She has read each one, but now most of the awards, gifts and letters have been sent to the USM Archives for safekeeping.

"I love 'em all," she said, "but I just don't have room for them. I gave 'em to the school. When I'm gone from this world never to come back, they'll have them to show the students."

The most recent ones, however, still cover the table and buffet in her dining room. McCarty, who wanted to be a nurse but had to drop out of school in the sixth grade to care for a sick aunt, pulls from a plastic bag the luxurious red suede-bound diploma from Harvard; a nurse's cap and honorary diploma in nursing from Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis; a baseball cap from Sisterhood Outreach in Memphis; keys to the cities of Memphis and Columbia, Miss.; and assorted corsage ribbons.

To McCarty, they are all the same. There are no big or small "rewards." She is as proud of the key to the city of Columbia as of the honorary doctorate from Harvard.

She unrolls a white banner lettered in blue that proclaims, "Welcome home! Congratulations, Dr. McCarty!"

"They hung that up by my house when I came back from Harvard," she says proudly. "There was people all down the street and lots of cameras. It was just great."

From another plastic bag she pulls her Olympic torch, a heavy pillar of wood and brass.

"I was between two patrolmen on motorcycles," she recalls. "One said when I got tired to hand it to him and to just put my hand under it until I got my distance. I couldn't run. I had to walk. I have my arthritis in my foot and hands. But I just did the best I could."

She is unimpressed by the long list of celebrities who have interviewed, introduced and otherwise honored her. She had never heard of most of them, anyway.

She tells of a woman singing to her at the National Urban League dinner in New York.

"She sang `Amazing Grace.' Everybody had watered eyes. Her name was Alberta or something."

Roberta Flack?

"That's the one," she says. "She's a songster."

She recalls visiting with keynote speaker Hillary Clinton at the AARP Convention in Denver.

"She was nice. She talked about how her husband was talking about me often, about how my gift will help children."

Asked if she had met the First Lady before, she replies matter-of-factly, "Yes ... when I was at her house."

Little in McCarty's house has changed in the year since her gift. The same pink bedspread is pinned neatly over the living room sofa. The same spotless linoleum covers the floor. Despite temperatures in the '90s, she still only turns on the window air conditioner when a visitor comes. She has a new TV set, but she rarely watches it.

She still reads her Bible daily, but the old, tattered one has been replaced many times over by new Bibles sent by admirers.

"I got so many Bibles," she said. "I gave some to my pastor, Rev. Woodrow Armstrong. Some were in large print, so I gave them to old people that can't read that little print."

No regrets

Some people have worried that the constant media demands, traveling and public appearances would be too much for McCarty. But she says, "I'm not tired of it, as long as I'm able. It gives me something to think about now that I'm retired."

After the announcement of her gift, the USM Foundation led a drive to match it, and donations poured in from across the nation. Although McCarty's gift will not officially go to the university until after her death, more than $200,000 has been added to it to endow scholarships now.

The first recipient, Stephanie Bullock of Hattiesburg, calls McCarty, who never married and is childless, her "honorary grandmother." Recently, USM junior chemistry major Carletta Barnes, also of Hattiesburg, became the second Oseola McCarty Scholarship

It is these scholarships, not the media attention and honors, of which McCarty is most proud. Her dream is to live to see Bullock and Barnes graduate.

"I didn't know how to do it," she says, "but I wanted to fix up a scholarship at USM so young people could get their education. You can't do nothing nowadays without an education. I don't regret one penny I gave. I just wish I had more to give."

She can't understand others' amazement at her saving so much from her meager earnings.

"It wasn't hard," she says simply. "I didn't buy things I didn't need... The Lord helped me, and he'll help you too... It's an honor to be blessed like that."

Persons who would like to contribute to the Oseola McCarty Scholarship Fund may send checks to: Oseola McCarty Scholarship, USM Foundation, Box 10026, Hattiesburg, MS 39406. #####

















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