October 05, 1987 12:00 PM

In the annals of philanthropy during the notoriously acquisitive 1980s, Eugene Lang’s epiphany now has the status of myth: How, in 1981, he sat in the auditorium of his old New York City grade school preparing to give a commencement address to its mostly poor, mostly Hispanic sixth graders. How he suddenly realized his prepared speech was just a bunch of bootstrap bunk, tossed out his notes and started to speak from the heart—talking about the awful fact that 75 percent of the kids before him were likely to drop out before they finished high school. How, by the middle of his talk, Lang found himself spontaneously making a promise: You stay in school, and I’ll pay for your college education.

This fall, half of those 61 sixth graders enrolled as college freshmen. The fulfillment of Lang’s promise was duly celebrated by CBS’ 60 Minutes. Better yet, his success has started a movement. As of the start of this school year, some 100 sponsors across the country had signed on to Lang’s I Have a Dream Foundation, adopting more than 4,000 students, and Lang expects those numbers to double in the next year. “That’s the gorgeous thing about what Eugene Lang did,” says chairman of U.S. Ameribancs Harrison Steans, whose family last June adopted 37 kids from Chicago’s North Side. “If people want to, they can easily get involved.”

They want to. William Farrell, who started an I Have a Dream chapter in Dallas and has so far recruited 55 local sponsors to adopt 1,000 inner-city children, calls it “a winsome program” with an immediate, heart-tugging appeal. But it also demands a commitment from the sponsors that goes far beyond traditional charity; Lang-alikes can’t just write a check or drop off the occasional box of old books and clothes. They have to be willing to get involved with their students on a personal, long-term basis and see them through all of the trials and temptations of adolescence in an urban environment.

Lang himself has coped with seven pregnancies and one felony conviction among his adopted kids, not to mention drugs, truancy and family crises. He’s not naive enough to think he can prevent such things. He only tries to make sure that his students, when they do face a problem, also have the backup most middle-class kids take for granted. “I’m here if they need me,” says Lang, 68, “just like family.” The son of a machinist and a schoolteacher who also owes his college degree to a benefactor, Lang says, “This program has given me a tremendous sense of purpose and a feeling that I’ve done something with my life.”

That feeling was precisely what was missing for George Kettle, 57, who also grew up poor and has parlayed a Century 21 real estate franchise in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., into an enterprise that grossed $2.5 billion in sales last year. “Once you get everything you thought was important, you discover it’s not; there is still an emptiness,” he says. “You can only buy so many Cadillacs and Mercedeses and boats and airplanes and second homes before you say, ‘Heh, there has to be more to life than this.’ ”

Kettle says he was leading a life of “quiet desperation” until September 1981, when he pulled his car over to the side of U.S. 1 in Pennsylvania and said, “Hey, God, You’ve got me!” That day Kettle pledged his life—and 10 percent of his income—to God’s work. Last spring he put $300,000 of that money toward the college costs of 60 Washington, D.C., sixth graders. By the time they’re ready to enroll, there will be $600,000 in the kitty.

Kettle became involved with the inner-city youths after reading about black ex-boxer Calvin Woodland, who single-handed was trying to help kids out of the ghetto. Kettle, a boxing fan, looked up the ex-fighter and soon was supporting his after-school programs. Last October, after hearing about Lang’s project, Kettle asked Woodland to help him find a class to adopt in impoverished southeast Washington. “You wouldn’t believe the things that happen to these kids,” says Woodland. “Some of them get kicked out of their house at 10 o’clock at night and told not to come back until the next morning.” Like children everywhere, though, they have their dreams. “I want to be a professional dancer,” Tanya White, 13, wrote to “Mr. K.,” assuring him, “I can dance my heart out.”

Still, it can take a while for the reality of the largess to sink in. Charlotte Kramer of Cleveland got a rather awkward reception when, like most I Have a Dream sponsors, she sprang her promise on a group of gradeschoolers with no warning. “I’m not sure they knew what was happening,” says Kramer, who read about Lang in a newspaper and has put up $250,000 to sponsor a class of 71 sixth graders at East Madison Elementary School. “I told them that if they wanted to be doctors or astronauts, they should work toward it,” says Kramer, who is married to businessman Leonard Schwartz. But “college must have seemed so far away.”

Texas cotton merchant and real estate investor A. Starke Taylor, a former mayor of Dallas, is more blunt about the communication gap between him and the kids he adopted this year. “I’ll tell you, I don’t think I impressed them very much,” says Taylor, 65, of his first meeting with the students at the Amelia Earhart Elementary School in West Dallas. But after four frustrating years in city government, the ex-mayor was ready to try doing good on a smaller scale. Helping 19 students sometimes seems “like spitting in the wind,” Taylor says, but “I just feel good about myself helping these kids. This isn’t going to solve all their problems, but it is a beginning.”

For Harrison Steans of Chicago, the I Have a Dream project is a family affair. When he profited from a big bank merger this year, Steans, 52, and his wife, Lois, 53, set up a family foundation and invited their three daughters to help disperse the money. Two of the Steans kids, twins Jennifer and Heather, 24, intrigued at adopting a class, have become involved with the students from the George Schneider School whom the family took on last spring. “We’re in this for the long haul,” says Steans. In addition to the $1,200 a year the Steans are investing toward each child’s college or trade school costs, the family has pledged $40,000 a year to pay a full-time coordinator during the high school years and to finance tutoring, outings and counseling.

But as two men in Atlanta have discovered, you don’t have to have a personal fortune to have a dream. “I’m not a millionaire,” says finance executive Llewellyn Haden, Jr., a director of strategic planning for First Wachovia, a bank holding company, though he admits, “I’m trying.” Nevertheless, he was eager to team up with his friend Dr. Robert Hatcher, 50, who directs a family planning clinic, to adopt a class. Each man pledged $2,000 a year. They figure they’ll need $300,000 more to make good on their promises to 47 kids at Atlanta’s Fred A. Toomer Elementary School, and so far they have raised $200,000 from companies and individuals. Reports Hatcher: “Eugene Lang has come up with an idea that is so compelling that everyone you speak to thinks, ‘Isn’t that wonderful?’ ”

Yet that was not exactly Lang’s reaction last summer, when the Atlantans arrived in New York with a thick book of guidelines for their dreamers. “The list went on and on,” says Haden, 42. “No pregnancies, keep the grade point average up.” Lang picked up the book and threw it in the trash can. “These kids deal with authority figures every day,” he said. “We want a team effort, not a bunch of rules.” Chastened, the pair returned to Atlanta.

When Hatcher finally stood before his students, he says, “I was within a week of my 50th birthday, and I was nervous at the idea of taking responsibility for all these young people, after raising three of my own. And yet, I couldn’t wait to work with them.” He still gets emotional every time he reads the essay one of his kids wrote about her dreams. “I’m going to be a doctor and get married and have one child,” it reads. “I hope it will be a girl so that she can get anything she wants. We’re going to stay in a big house. She is going to have a room upstairs.” Says Hatcher: “I realized that it was just what one of my own kids would have wanted. These kids are shut out and want to be in the mainstream of American life.”

Eugene Lang knows now that it will take more than a few scholarships to make that happen. “One thing I can’t share with these kids is the advantage in being white,” he says. “I can see now that if I had been black, most of what I had done would never have taken place.” But his initial idea was not to change the world, just to improve the odds for one small group. Michael Lopez, 17, a kid who spent three years in Attica prison for attempted robbery, is out now, thanks to Lang’s steady pressure, and is now enrolled at LaGuardia Community College in New York. Says Lang: “We never give up.”

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