June 07, 1999 12:00 PM

Why does Matel Dawson still work? He’s 78, his rent is covered and, other than a fondness for short ribs and catfish, his expenses are minimal. Yet, he puts in overtime, often seven days a week, as a $23-an-hour forklift rigger at the Ford plant in Dearborn, Mich., where he has toiled for 59 years. He works because he needs the money—to give to others. Dawson’s latest gift, $200,000 for scholarships at Detroit’s Wayne State University, takes his philanthropy past $1 million. “My mother always did want one of us to go to school,” says Dawson, one of seven children of a homemaker and a hospital worker in Shreveport, La. “This is fulfilling some of her dreams.”

Divorced in 1976, Dawson, who has a grown daughter, began giving in 1991. The eighth-grade graduate has donated $230,000 to the United Negro College Fund, $200,000 to Louisiana State, $10,000 to community colleges, $112,000 to various churches—and a total of $440,000 to Wayne State. “Students send him thank-you notes,” says Donald Ritzenhein, a vice president at the school. “That seems to be what he wants.” Dawson has also been treated to trips, including one in 1998 to New York City, where he met Bill Cosby. “He put his arms around me and said, ‘Where’d you get all that money from?’ ” recounts Dawson, still tickled by the memory. “I said, ‘I’m tryin’ to catch up with you!’ ”

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