By V. M. GOPAUL
On July 26, 1995, a single decision completely changed the rest of Oseola McCarty’s life beyond anyone’s imagination. It was more than a dream come true. This one selfless act gave the last four years of her 91-year-old frail body a new life. It was hard to fathom how this one decision—she had only had a few major ones in her entire life—could attract so much attention from the most celebrated of America.
For most of her life, she hardly left the area she was born in, yet Bill Clinton, President of United States of America, invited her for dinner at the White House; she had very few years of education, yet Harvard University bestowed to her a doctoral degree. She hardly watched TV, yet all the major anchors and talk show hosts of national TV networks wanted her on their programs; she did not understand nor cared to know about sports, yet when introduced at the University of South Mississippi football game, thirty thousand fans cheered.
Why did she become so special in the last years of her life? She led a simple life, unaffected by materialism, yet she was rich in uncommon wisdom, which inspired her to take small steps of monumental value.
Oseola McCarty was born in Wayne County, Mississippi, on March 7, 1908. When Oseola was young, her mother, Lucy, moved to nearby Hattiesburg for a better life. Her mother worked hard to support her daughter. Osela recalls, “She cooked for Mr. J.S. Garraway, who was Forrest County Circuit Clerk, and she would go to the schoolhouse and sell candy to make money.”
Soon, young Oseola attended Eureka Elementary School. After school hours, she ironed clothes to earn money. She put the money away, and after she had enough, she went to First Mississippi National Bank to deposit it. The teller advised her to put it in a savings account. Since this very early age, saving, to her, became as natural as eating and sleeping. She continued to save regularly.
When Oseola was in sixth grade, her aunt went to the hospital for surgery. After returning from the hospital, she could not walk. As the aunt did not have any children of her own, Oseola offered to take care of her while sacrificing her school studies. Even when the aunt became well, Oseola never returned to school; instead, she continued washing and ironing. In those early days, charging about $1.50 a bundle, she paid regular visits to the local bank, putting her savings away. Over the years, the money in her account grew, although the banks changed names and merged.
Slowly, her immediate family grew smaller. Her grandmother died in 1944, her mother in 1964, and her aunt in 1967. Her mother and aunt each left her some money, which she added to her savings. In 1947, her uncle gave her the house where she lived for the rest of her long life. She was pretty much by herself.
She never left the county, never owned a car, and walked everywhere she went. Once a week, Oseola pushed a shopping cart to Big Star, more than a mile away, to get groceries. She continued washing, ironing, and saving.
In her small house, Oseola spent a lot of time in the small, neat living room—the linoleum floor gleaming, a spotless pink bedspread pinned carefully over the sofa—where she related her story with a quiet and matter-of-fact manner. On a hot day, for the visitor’s benefit, she turned on the window air conditioner that bank personnel had only recently persuaded her to get.
Bank personnel, realizing that Miss. McCarty was accumulating sizeable savings, advised her to put her money into CD’s, conservative mutual funds, and other accounts where it would work for her.
Oseola’s arthritis in her hands forced her to retire from washing and ironing in December 1994 at age eighty-six. For about eight decades, she had served many generations of the same families. Now she spends her days cleaning her own house, and she still walks everywhere she goes. But she said, “If I ever get able to, I want to go back to work.”
Nancy Odom and Ellen Vinzant of Trustmark Bank, who have known Miss. McCarty for several years, not only helped her manage her money but also looked after her personally. It was they who helped her get the air conditioner. They also were concerned about what the future held for her.
Oseola, who never married said, “After my aunt died, I began to think, I didn’t have nobody. I began to think about what to do with what little I had. I wanted to leave some to some cousins and my church. But I had been thinking for a long time … since I was in school … I didn’t know how to fix it, but I wanted to give it to the college (USM). They used to not let colored people go out there, but now they do, and I think they should have it.”
Odom and Vinzant referred Miss. McCarty to Paul Laughlin, Trustmark’s assistant vice president and trust officer. Laughlin said, “… She was quite definite about wanting to give 60 percent to USM. To my knowledge, she has never been out there, but she seems to have the best of the students in mind. The decision was entirely hers.”
On July 1995, Oseola McCarty, a soft-spoken eighty-seven-year-old black woman, whose lined, brown hands gnarled with arthritis and bear witness to a lifetime of washing and ironing for a living, went to donate $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi. McCarty’s gift established the Oseola McCarty Scholarship to help a needy student receive the education Oseola never had.
Generosity and sacrifice, as exemplified in Oseola’s character, are two of the main foundations upon which the oneness of humanity will be built. Ted Turner, founder of CNN, philanthropist, and businessman, was so inspired by this elderly laundress that he gave one billion dollars of his own to the United Nations.
On August 3, 1995, came the most anticipated announcement: Who would receive the first McCarty Scholarship? Stephanie Bullock, an eighteen-year-old Hattiesburg High School graduate, was the most deserving. McCarty’s dearest wish was that it would go to help the right person.
Word of Oseola’s act of kindness spread around the country, and she became a celebrity, sought out by politicians, journalist, clergies, media, sports personalities, and academics. She died a rich person. Her legacy lives on in youth development programs, scholarships, and parks.