Oseola McCartyThe death of Michael  Jackson was the top story last week. The entertainer made headlines around the world, praised for his talent, his ability to bridge the gap between blacks and whites with his music and his philanthropic endeavors. He was, almost everyone agreed, a hero.

Such talk had me thinking about someone I had the opportunity to interview years ago, when I was the editor of the Faith & Values section of The Atlanta Constitution. While she had her 15 minutes of fame back in the mid-1990s, not too many people would recall Oseola McCarty today. A quick reminder: She was the Mississippi washerwoman who amassed a small fortune, then gave away much of it to the University of Southern Mississippi.

This is her story. It’s worth repeating when talking about heroes.

Oseola McCarty’s life was filled with grace, a quiet hymn to goodness. She managed to skirt the complex, focusing on three core beliefs that filled her life with meaning – God, family and work. Link these beliefs with compassion and love and you have the makings of a hero, maybe a saint. You decide.

Oseola McCarty was a washerwoman. Not a maid. Not a domestic. A washerwoman. For more than seven decades she carefully washed and ironed the dirty laundry of the rich folks of Hattiesburg, Miss.

But it wasn’t just a job, a way to make a living and keep a roof over her head. Washing clothes was her passion — something she did well, something she enjoyed.

Each week she would set aside a little money. The weeks grew into months, the  months into years.

The fabric of time was filled with family and God, blessings that brought her peace during moments of doubt and sadness. After all, Oseola McCarty was a poor black woman growing up in Mississippi during a period when society was filled with hate and rank with fear.

The work continued. Her overhead was low. Her needs were few. In 1994 she retired. And these were the telling numbers in her life: Started work at 12. Retired at 86. Bank balance: $280,000.

That’s right. Oseola McCarty had managed to save over a quarter of a million dollars. That in itself was a remarkable achievement, a gift that speaks of sacrifice and commitment and the ability to face challenges that most of us hardly comprehend.

What she did with the money was breathtaking and captured the imagination and wonder of the entire country. While planning for her retirement, she told her banker she wanted to give a little money to her church and family, and $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi.

It seemed such a magnanimous gesture. And for some people that’s what it would have been. But Oseola McCarty was a quiet woman. A shy woman. A humble woman. Her gift was from the heart. These are her words:

“Some people make a lot of noise about what’s wrong with the world, and they are usually blaming somebody else. I think people who don’t like the way things are, need to look at themselves first.”

Oseola McCarty looked at herself and acted. She saw a problem and solved it. And sometimes the willingness to act is the difference between the commonplace and the transcendent.

A footnote. Oseola McCarty spent the last few years of her life being honored for her gift. She met with government officials and world leaders, received hundreds of awards and citations, including the Presidential Citizen’s Medal, the nation’s second highest civilian award, and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. She was thrilled and excited by the recognition, but remained humble to the end. She died in 1999. The Oseola McCarty Scholarship fund at the University of Southern Mississippi continues to aid needy African-American students today.

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Ron Feinberg

Ron Feinberg

Ron Feinberg is a veteran journalist who has worked for daily newspapers across the Southeast, including the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla. and the Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, N.C. He recently retired from The Atlanta Journal Constitution where he had been an editor since 1979. He was the news editor for The Atlanta Journal before it was folded into The Atlanta Constitution in the mid-1980s, then news editor for The Constitution. In the mid-1990s he helped create the AJC's Faith & Values section and served as its first editor