A kind, courageous Ethics Hero died last week. To my shame, I had never heard of him. In 1996, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but that award has been so degraded and politicized that I no longer pay much attention to it. My mistake: in this case, the award was well-earned.
Eugene M. Lang was born poor and became a successful and wealthy investor. In 1981, he was invited to deliver a commencement address to 61 New Your City sixth graders at Public School 121, his alma mater. “I looked out at that audience of almost entirely black and Hispanic students, wondering what to say to them,” he recalled years later. “It dawned on me that the commencement banalities I planned were completely irrelevant…So I began by telling them that one of my most memorable experiences was Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and that everyone should have a dream.”
Then, in a flash of inspiration, he decided on the spot to tell them that he would give a scholarship to every student in the class who was admitted to a four-year college.
That impulsive promise led to his establishment of the I Have a Dream Foundation, with an office in Manhattan. Lang hired a project coordinator and established a year-round program of academic support including mentoring and tutoring as well as sponsored cultural and recreational outings. In the meantime, he virtually adopted that 6th grade class, taking them on trips and restaurants, and personally counseling them through personal travails as well as school problems, often intervening with school officials on their behalf. By the time Eugene Lang died at age 98, his dedication had changed the lives of more than 16,000 at-risk children nationwide.
Lang said the he knew, when he made his pledge to those 11 and 12-year olds, that giving poor and troubled children money for an education would not ensure their success. He knew many would succumb to the cycle of poverty, drugs, jail and irresponsible parenthood. “When I made the original promise, the principal told me that maybe one or two students would take advantage of my offer,” he told one interviewer. That’s why he dedicated himself to doing more.
Lang gave millions to various charities and educational institutions during his life, and clearly understood what altruism is all about.
“Giving should not be mechanical,” he once said. “It should be the fruit of one’s feeling, love and sense of responsibility. Giving is not giving back. There is no quid pro quo. Giving is self-fulfillment.”
There was one more surprise as I read various obituaries and appreciations of Eugene Michael Lang. One of his sons is the superb actor Stephen Lang, whose film “Don’t Breathe” I wrote about in January, and whose performance as General Pickett in “Gettysburg’ is one of the many pleasures of that film.
Now I finally know who Eugene Lang was: an activist, a philanthropist, a role model, and an Ethics Hero who changed many lives while leaving American society better than it was.
I’m just sorry that it took me this long.