January 13, 1997 12:00 PM

DURING THE SEVEN DECADES THAT Oseola McCarty washed clothes for well-to-do families in Hattiesburg, Miss.—working 12-hour days and squirreling away every extra penny—the frugal washerwoman never took much time for herself. But after the outpouring of affection and acclaim in 1995 when she donated a large part of her life’s savings—more than $150,000—to the University of Southern Mississippi, the diminutive 88-year-old decided, perhaps for the first time in her life, to go for the glamor. These days, Hattiesburg’s frail hometown heroine wears a smart gray wig, bright dresses and a pair of stylish pumps made in France. Says one new friend, Ledrester Hayes, 65: “If we call, fixing to pick her up and take her someplace, she’ll say, ‘Okay, I’m ready! All I have to do is put on my makeup.’ ”

It has been a breathless 18 months for Oseola McCarty, who had ventured out of Mississippi only once before news of her generosity brought reporters from as far away as Argentina to the door of her small wood-frame house in the summer of 1995. Since then she has traveled to more than a dozen cities to collect civic awards. Harvard University presented her with an honorary degree, Roberta Flack serenaded her at a National Urban League gala, and on Dec. 31, Mc-Carty pulled the switch that lowers the New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square. “Yes, sir, I’ve been kind of busy,” muses the once-retiring retiree. “I sure have.”

For McCarty, who never married and has lived alone since 1967, the biggest unexpected return on her gift to USM is something more basic than a new wig and shoes: It is a new joy in life. “She’s kind of come out of that shell she was in,” says Hayes, whose granddaughter Stephanie Bullock, 19, is one of two African-American students to have received an Oseola McCarty Endowment Scholarship to USM. Adds another admirer, USM public relations director Bud Kirkpatrick: “She likes to get out and go because she’d never gotten out and gone.”

McCarty didn’t join the social whirl overnight. After 28 years of living in solitude following the deaths of her mother and an aunt who had raised her, she had become something of a recluse. “When we started traveling, she wouldn’t talk,” says Jewel Brantley Tucker, an administrative secretary to USM’s president, who often accompanies McCarty to out-of-town appearances. “I said, ‘Miss McCarty, you’ve got to talk. I’m the oldest of 15 children, and I’m accustomed to noise.’ And she said, ‘Well, I don’t talk.’ ” Tucker, who wouldn’t take no for an answer, eventually persuaded her self-contained companion to open up during the course of long train trips. “Now we’re almost inseparable,” she says. “We’ve almost established a mother-daughter relationship.”

When civic groups first invited her to receive awards in person, McCarty accepted only if she could travel by train—her first trip to New York City via Washington took 39 hours one way. But when the American Association of Retired Persons asked her to Denver—a train journey that, including unavoidable layovers in Chicago and a few days in Denver, would have taken close to three weeks—McCarty agreed to overcome her fear of flying. “I thought it would be nice to try and help Jewel,” McCarty says. She regretted the decision only once, when the first plane she ever boarded, en route to Washington, banked sharply last Feb. 13. “Jewel!” she told Tucker, “I think the plane’s going to turn over!”

It didn’t, and McCarty now flies almost weekly without complaint, as long as she’s back in Hattiesburg on the first of each month to deposit her Social Security check. “It’s hard keeping up with Miss McCarty,” says Bullock, one of several Hattiesburg women who take McCarty shopping when she’s at home. “It’s just fun,” says McCarty of her new life. “I enjoy it.”

Now that friends are likely to drop by, McCarty has perked up the living room of her house on Miller Street, where for years she was kept company by a dog called Dog and a pig called Hog. Using money from her remaining savings, she has bought a secondhand plush love seat and replaced her old 13-inch black-and-white TV (it received only one channel) with a used 20-inch color model with cable that she watches “for a little while” daily. She also now owns a smoke detector. “She’ll [call and] say, ‘That thing’s in my house again,’ ” says USM’s Kirkpatrick. “That means her smoke alarm is chirping. We’ll go and put a battery in for her.”

Even in retirement, McCarty can’t really relax. Last summer, Shannon Maggio, an editor from Atlanta’s Longstreet Press, came to McCarty’s front porch to help her write her first book, Simple Wisdom for Rich Living, which has sold more than 35,000 copies since it was published last November. In it, McCarty shares upbeat advice on credit cards (“Okay for some people, but I wouldn’t go for one”) and the secret to building a fortune (“compounding interest”). But she also reveals her fears. “I do have a few,” she writes. “I am afraid of the dark, and I am scared to death of snakes and lizards. But I don’t let those things keep me from living.”


RON RIDENHOUR in Hattiesburg

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