Oseola McCarty was born into the world in 1908, and it was a raw start. She was conceived when her mother was raped on a wooded path in rural Mississippi as she returned from tending a sick relative. Oseola was raised in Hattiesburg by her grandmother and aunt, who cleaned houses, cooked, and took in laundry.
As a child, Oseola would come home from elementary school and iron clothes, stashing the money she earned in her doll buggy. The three women relied completely on each other, and when the aunt returned from a hospitalization unable to walk, Oseola dropped out of sixth grade to care for her, and take up her work as a washerwoman. She never returned to school.
“Work became the great good of her life,” explained one person who knew her. “She found beauty in its movement and pride in its provisions. She was happy to have it and gave herself over to it with abandon.”
McCarty herself put it this way: “I knew there were people who didn’t have to work as hard as I did, but it didn’t make me feel sad. I loved to work, and when you love to do anything, those things don’t bother you. . . . Sometimes I worked straight through two or three days. I had goals I was working toward. That motivated me and I was able to push hard. . . . Work is a blessing. As long as I am living I want to be working at something. Just because I am old doesn’t mean I can’t work.”
And hers was not a standard-issue job. McCarty scrubbed her laundry by hand on a rubboard. She did try an automatic washer and dryer in the 1960s, but found that “the washing machine didn’t rinse enough, and the dryer turned the whites yellow.” After years of boiling clothes and then doing four fresh-water rinses, that wasn’t good enough to meet her high standards. The machine was almost immediately retired, and she went back to her Maid Rite scrubboard, water drawn from a nearby fire hydrant, and 100 feet of open-air clothesline.
Asked to describe her typical day, McCarty answered:
“I would go outside and start a fire under my wash pot. Then I would soak, wash, and boil a bundle of clothes. Then I would rub ’em, wrench ’em, rub ’em again, starch ’em, and hang ’em on the line. After I had all of the clean clothes on the line, I would start on the next batch. I’d wash all day, and in the evenin’ I’d iron until 11:00. I loved the work. The bright fire. Wrenching the wet, clean cloth. White shirts shinin’ on the line.”
This extraordinary work ethic, pursued straight through to her retirement at age 86, apparently produced results her customers appreciated. In 1996, Hattiesburg businessman Paul Laughlin wrote, “I know one person who still has several shirts that were last cleaned almost two years ago by Miss McCarty. He says that he does not intend to wear them; he just takes them out periodically to look at them and to enjoy the crisp fabric and its scent.” McCarty, concludes Laughlin, was a walking object lesson “that all work can be performed with dignity and infused with quality.”
“Hard work gives your life meaning,” stated McCarty. “Everyone needs to work hard at somethin’ to feel good about themselves. Every job can be done well and every day has its satisfactions. . . . If you want to feel proud of yourself, you’ve got to do things you can be proud of.”
Shortly after she retired, McCarty did something that made many Americans very proud of her. She had begun to save almost as soon as she started working at age eight. As the money pooled up in her doll buggy, the very young girl took action. “I went to the bank and deposited. Didn’t know how to do it. Went there myself. Didn’t tell mama and them I was goin’.”
“I commenced to save money. I never would take any of it out. I just put it in. . . . It’s not the ones that make the big money, but the ones who know how to save who get ahead. You got to leave it alone long enough for it to increase.”
Of course that requires self-control and modest appetites. “My secret was contentment. I was happy with what I had,” said McCarty.
These sturdy habits ran together to produce McCarty’s final secret. When she retired in 1995, her hands painfully swollen with arthritis, this washerwoman who had been paid in little piles of coins and dollar bills her entire life had $280,000 in the bank.
Even more startling: she decided to give most of it away—not as a bequest, but immediately.
Setting aside just enough to live on, McCarty donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for worthy but needy students seeking the education she never had. When they found out what she had done, over 600 men and women in Hattiesburg and beyond made donations that more than tripled her original endowment. Today, the university presents several full-tuition McCarty scholarships every year.
"I can’t do everything. But I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do I will do."
Like a lot of philanthropists, McCarty wanted the satisfactions of giving while living. And she succeeded. The first beneficiary of her gift, a Hattiesburg girl named Stephanie Bullock, was president of her senior class and had supportive parents, but also a twin brother, and not enough family income to send them both to college. With her McCarty Scholarship, Bullock enrolled at Southern Miss, and promptly adopted McCarty as a surrogate grandmother.
Like a lot of philanthropists, McCarty felt a powerful impulsion to act in her home region. When asked why she picked Southern Miss, she replied “because it’s here.” The campus (though she had never visited) was located just a couple blocks from her home.
Prior to making her gift, Oseola’s one long trip had been to Niagara Falls. Here is her recollection:
“Law, the sound of the water was like the sound of the world comin’ to an end. In the evening we spread blankets on the ground and ate picnic dinners. I met people from all over the world. On the return trip, we stopped in Chicago. I liked it, but was ready to get back home. I missed the place where I belonged—where I was needed and makin’ a contribution. No place compares to the piece of earth where you have put down your roots.”
Like a lot of faithful philanthropists, Oseola McCarty was forgiving. Reminded that the university she was giving her money to had been white-only until the 1960s, she answered with equanimity: “They used to not let colored people go out there. But now they do. And I think they should have it.”
Like a lot of philanthropists, Oseola McCarty had a strong and virtuous character and good habits. She lived frugally, walking almost everywhere, including more than a mile to get her groceries. When she stayed in a hotel for the first time after coming to public attention, she made the bed before checking out.
In addition to the dignity of work, McCarty’s satisfactions were the timeless ones: faith in God, family closeness, and love of locale. One friend described McCarty’s faith as “as simple as the Sermon on the Mount, and as difficult to practice.” She was baptized at age 13, dunked in a local pond while dressed all in white (a mixed blessing for someone who washed her clothes by hand).
“I start each day on my knees, saying the Lord’s Prayer. Then I get busy about my work,” McCarty told one interviewer. “You have to accept God the best way you know how and then He’ll show Himself to you. And the more you serve Him, the more able you are to serve Him.”
“Some people make a lot of noise about what’s wrong with the world, and they are usually blamin’ somebody else. I think people who don’t like the way things are need to look at themselves first. They need to get right with God and change their own ways. . . . If everybody did that, we’d be all right.”
Like a lot of philanthropists, Oseola McCarty knew that giving is its own pleasure. When a journalist from People magazine asked her why she didn’t spend the money she’d saved on herself, she answered with a smile that thanks to the pleasure that comes from making a gift, “I am spending it on myself.”
“I am proud that I worked hard and that my money will help young people who worked hard to deserve it. I’m proud that I am leaving something positive in this world. My only regret is that I didn’t have more to give.”
Like a lot of philanthropists, McCarty hoped to inspire others to similar acts. And she did. In addition to the local outpouring that more than tripled her endowment, cable TV mogul Ted Turner decided to donate a billion dollars to charity after hearing her story. He was quoted in the New York Times saying, “If that little woman can give away everything she has, then I can give a billion.”
And like a lot of philanthropists, Oseola McCarty knew she didn’t have to save the whole world. She cast her buckets down and fixed what was at hand. “I can’t do everything. But I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do I will do.”
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Oseola McCarty deserves to be recognized not only for her own accomplishments, but as a representative of millions of other everyday Americans who give humbly of themselves, year after year. There are Oseolas all across the U.S.
Gus and Marie Salenske were a plumber and nurse who lived quietly in a small house in Syracuse, New York. Their one indulgence was weekly square dancing. When they died, it was reported in 2012, this simple couple left more than $3 million to good causes, mostly their beloved Catholic church.
Anne Scheiber was a shy auditor who retired in 1944 with just $5,000 in the bank. Through frugal living and inspired stock-picking she turned this into $22 million by the time she died in 1995 at the age of 101. She left it all to Yeshiva University so that bright but needy girls could attend college and medical school.
Minnesota farmer Harvey Ordung consumed modestly, and invested prudently. When he passed on, he left $4.5 million to 12 charities in his home region of Rock County. The largest portion went to a program that gives college scholarships to local kids.
Elinor Sauerwein painted her own home, kept a vegetable garden, and mowed the lawn herself until she was in her 90s. She eschewed restaurants, cable TV, and other expenses as unnecessary luxuries. But when she died in 2011, she left $1.7 million to the local Modesto, California, branch of the Salvation Army. “Her goal for years and years was to amass as much as she could so it would go to the Salvation Army,” reported her financial adviser.
Millicent Atkins earned a teaching degree in 1940 but eventually left that profession to help manage the family farm in South Dakota. She developed a keen eye for productive land, and an appetite for buying. She eventually owned 4,127 acres. When she died in 2012 she left $38 million to two nearby universities and her church.
Albert Lexie shined shoes for more than 50 years, and made a decision early on to donate every penny of his tips to the Free Care Fund of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, which benefits families who can’t afford treatment. From 1981 to 2013, Lexie handed over more than $200,000 to Children’s Hospital—a third of his total earnings.
Gifts like these cumulate with millions of others from ordinary Americans in a powerful way. Between 70 and 90 percent of U.S. households make charitable contributions every year, with the average household contribution being about $2,500. That is two to 20 times as much generosity as in equivalent Western European nations. In addition, half of all U.S. adults volunteer their time to charitable activities, totaling an estimated 20 billion hours per year.
The result: A massive charitable flow of $373 billion per year, with 80 percent coming from generous individuals. Only 15 percent of all annual charity in the U.S. comes in the form of foundation grants. Just 5 percent is contributed by corporations.
One may quite accurately say that it is Oseola McCarty and similar partners who make America the most generous nation on earth.
- “Oral history with Miss Oseola McCarty,” University of Southern Mississippi Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage (1997), lib.usm.edu/legacy/spcol/coh/cohmccartyo.html
- Rick Bragg, “All She Has, $150,000, is Going to a University,” New York Times, August 13, 1995, nytimes.com/1995/08/13/us/all-she-has-150000-is-going-to-a-university.html
- Oseola McCarty’s Simple Wisdom for Rich Living, edited by Shannon Maggio (1996)