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Marc Morial
Published: 05 January 2006

Three years ago America was amazed to hear about the stories of two ordinary citizens who gave extraordinary gifts to the world: Matel Dawson and Osceola McCarty. Their stories are even memorable given the untold suffering so many faced in the year just ended. First, there was Matel Dawson Jr., a blue-collar worker at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit, who since 1939 lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in nearby Highland Park, Mich.. He was 81. Outwardly, Dawson wore the trappings of an ordinary person. Racial segregation had forced him from the South without a high school diploma. He worked for Ford in a series of skilled blue-collar jobs. He lived frugally, and drove modest cars — always Fords, of course. But Dawson was a wealthy man, having amassed during his career a great deal of money through frugal living and wise investments; and during the last decade or so of his life, he proceeded to give great chunks of his wealth away. He gave $680,000 to Detroit's Wayne State University, and $300,000 to Louisiana State University. He gave $240,000 to the United Negro College Fund, and thousands more to his churches and other churches, to community colleges and to civil rights organizations. In 2002, his was honored by the White House, and received the annual Community Service Award from the National Urban League. But let's be clear about what we all were honoring. It was not Dawson's financial acumen and his horde of money. What we were honoring was his wealth of spirit, his generosity. Dawson came to the nation's attention after the late Osceola McCarty, who had been a laundress and seamstress most of her life, had captured the nation's admiration for giving huge sums of her meticulously amassed savings to higher education in her native Mississippi and elsewhere. That kind of commitment to compassion is more necessary than ever today as millions of people are adrift in an America. Unemployment remains high especially for the most disadvantaged. Even more have joined the ranks of the jobless and potentially homeless as temporary housing for many Hurricane Katrina victims will soon go away. But we must not forget. As reported in this column weeks ago and reiterated by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive Washington, D.C. think tank, nearly 250,000 wrecked businesses have applied to the federal Small Business Administration for loans; 150,000 evacuees remain housed in hotel rooms around the country, wholly dependent upon the federal government to pay their hotel bills; and roughly 25 percent of evacuees who lost their jobs because of the storm remain unemployed. For the Southeast region, there will remain extraordinary budget crises, as homelessness increases in cities and suburbs, as general unemployment — especially among Blacks and Latinos — rises, the nation needs its political leaders to take actions that ease the plight of those most in need. Also, we as ordinary citizens must stay engaged. We must give of our pockets as well as our prayers to care about those families whose holidays and entire lives have devastated. "I need money to make me happy," Dawson said to Jet magazine during a 1998 interview. "It makes me happy to give money away. It gives me a good feeling." Again, what drove Dawson and McCarty, and what ought to drive us is the "good feeling" that will come from helping others in need. Let us try to remember, as the holidays recede, compassion should always be in season.Marc Morial is president of the National Urban League.

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