October 02, 1995 12:00 PM

CHRIS GROSS HAS ALWAYS BEEN cautious with money. In fact, say his friends, he can be pretty tight with a dime. So when the 27-year-old financial analyst from Santa Clara, Calif., decided to start a scholarship fund for children affected by the Oklahoma City bombing—and donated his entire annual salary of $53,874 as seed money—his friends figured he’d lost his spreadsheets. “Chris is not Diamond Jim,” says longtime pal Mike Bernstein, 41. “That’s why this is so eye-popping.”

And perhaps that’s why it’s so heartening. “I’m not a saint,” says Gross. “I’m a normal person.” Like most Americans, he was sickened by the April 19 bombing. But he was also deeply moved by the 150 children left orphaned or missing a parent. His own parents, Sandra, 55, and Sheldon, 63, owners of a Phoenix auto-body repair shop, had put Chris and his brother Scott, 28, an engineering grad student, through college. “I’ve always known I’m fortunate,” says the University of Arizona graduate. “I just wondered what one person could do.”

The answer: inspire an outpouring of altruism. Gross’s employer, Applied Materials Inc., which produces computer-chip equipment, quickly matched his contribution, and six other corporations kicked in, as did 900 people nationwide. The fund, started April 30, now has $600,000—more than halfway to Gross’s goal of $1 million.

Gross has had to economize, of course. He’s living off $12,000 in savings, once earmarked for a house. To help meet his $500-a-month rent, he’s given up his beloved cell phone. He has bought no new clothes lately, and he cadges free meals from friends. “And I buy a lot of cereal,” he says.

One thing is certain; he’ll never be starved for affection. Charmed by his generosity, more than 900 people have written and invited him to dinner or offered a place to stay (one little girl signed her letter, “Ton o’ love, Emily”). “When I read these,” he says, “I know I’ve done the right thing.”

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