Ethics Hero Emeritus: Eugene M. Lang

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.

It worked. More than half of the original 61 sixth graders enrolled in public and private colleges. When Lang realized that  the sixth grade was too late to change children’s aspirations and attitudes, he began focusing on third and fourth graders. One of Lang’s initiatives was to recruit other prominent and wealthy New Yorkers to sponsor public-school classes by depositing $300,000 into foundation-operated annuities and to commit to personally shepherding the children through their education and lives, as he was doing. Among Lang’s converts were investment banker Joseph H. Reich and his wife, Carol F. Reich. They were inspired to establish an elementary school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that became one of the models for the charter school movement.

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.

6 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Eugene M. Lang

  1. Perhaps we all need this type of role model; not just kids born into situations that creates a sense of disadvantage.

  2. Thanks for writing this Jack.

    There are so many people out there that toss around the word “hero” at any action from another human being that they admire, I am not one of those people; I think the word hero has an extremely high honor associated with it and over using the word diminishes the value the word has to the masses.

    That said…

    Eugene M. Lang is a man that has earned that extremely high honor and has earned the honor to be called “hero”, not the risking life and limb kind of hero status but for his incredible achievements and noble qualities trying to help others, both directly and indirectly, to make their lives better in ways that are life changing. He really understood the difference between giving a man a fish vs teaching a man how to fish.

    As some of you have read in the past, I’ve tutored a wide range of ages of students all the way up to undergraduate studies, I still do, I understand the value of what Mr. Lang started. I’m now going to honor this hero by helping continue his efforts and add the I Have a Dream Foundation to my charitable giving starting today. Maybe my contributions will add just enough to the whole package to change the life of an additional person.

    If you want to make a difference for future generations, this seems like a pretty good way.

    • Just received a nice email back from I Have a Dream Foundation after donating to them a couple of minutes ago, I though you all might like to read it. I put some of it in bold.

      “Thank you for your generous donation of $_______ USD in support of the National “I Have A Dream” Foundation. It is very much appreciated!

      Your donation will help ensure that the “I Have A Dream” Foundation can continue to provide quality programming to Dreamers across the country. We are extremely proud of our Dreamers, yet, painfully aware that with 25 million school-aged children living in poverty, many more young people need the support of the “I Have A Dream” Foundation. Since 1981 the Foundation has worked with over 18,000 Dreamers. We know our program works: 90% of our Dreamers complete high school and of those, 67% enroll in college. Our Dreamers complete college at a rate nearly three times that of their low-income peers. By helping our Dreamers succeed in postsecondary education we are putting them on a different academic and life trajectory ensuring that the cycle of poverty is broken for the generations that follow.

      You have made this gift In Honor of Eugene M. Lang.”

  3. He will also be remembered for inspiring another great man of business, Michael Scott, to make a similar promise to a classroom full of children. It didn’t go as well.

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