Oseola McCarty’s spirit of giving continues to impact the lives of Southern Miss students nearly three decades after her generous donation

Published: Feb. 5, 2023 at 10:45 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Imagine working all your life and saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead of keeping the money all to yourself, you give it away in the hopes of helping people you may never even get the chance to see or know.

Well, that’s exactly what Oseola McCarty decided to do. She’s known for being a cheerful giver, and her story captures the hearts of everyone who hears it.

McCarty only had a sixth-grade education and had dreams of going to college to become a nurse. However, those plans changed once she had to take care of her sick aunt.

She earned a living by ironing and washing other people’s clothes, which she did for 75 years.

“Beginning at the age of eight, she began helping her family in the family laundry business and did that for her entire life,” said Stace Mercier, Executive Director of the University of Southern Mississippi Foundation.

McCarty was a very frugal woman. In fact, she never even owned a car, and the home she stayed in was given to her by her uncle.

“She started saving money by putting a little bit in her doll buggy, and as an adult, she began taking it to the bank and slowly amassed a small fortune,” said Mercier.

Her savings had grown to roughly $250,000.

Unlike most people, McCarty chose to donate more than half of her money.

It was her banker who helped her make that decision.

“He used dimes, and he said, ‘Ok, pretend these dimes are dollars, and you show me how you’d like to divvy that up,” Mercier explained. “She gave a dime for her church, a dime for three different cousins, and then the remaining six dimes to the University of Southern Mississippi, so majority of her fortune came to the University of Southern Mississippi.”

McCarty donated $150,000 of her hard-earned money to USM.

Mercier said McCarty had never stepped foot on USM’s campus.

She simply chose the school because the university was in her hometown.

“Living in Hattiesburg, watching children walk by her house every day because she lived by Hattiesburg High, she thought about their future,” said Mercier. “She thought about them and how she might be able to change their lives one day.”

This act of kindness catapulted the Hattiesburg woman into the national spotlight.

McCarty made appearances on talk shows, was asked to carry the Olympic torch during the 1996 Olympics, and was even invited to the White House to meet President Bill Clinton, where she was awarded a Presidential Citizens Medal.

“She also changed the conversation across the nation about philanthropy, said Mercier. “The impact of her gift went well beyond Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We began receiving gifts from all over the country from people who had no affinity to USM but had heard her story.”

The money McCarty donated has now been used to create a scholarship fund in her name.

“In the amount of time that we’ve had this scholarship, 126 students have had the scholarship, and almost $600,000 has been distributed to those students,” said Mercier.

“My scholarships are the only reason I’m sitting in this room right now,” said Destiny Johnson, who’s a senior at USM receiving the Oseola McCarty Scholarship.

For Johnson, being able to enroll at Southern Miss due to McCarty’s generous gift serves as inspiration and motivation each and every day.

“I’m in nursing school. I’m going to keep going for you,” Johnson expressed. “You weren’t able to become a nurse, but I’m going to graduate in May, having her scholarship behind my name. I did this because of her.”

“It is motivating because I know that she is behind it, and it just gives me so much encouragement to finish this out for her,” said Katie Hendrix, who’s one of the USM students awarded the Oseola McCarty Scholarship.

“Even though it’s not benefitting her at this very moment, or she won’t know the person that it benefits, I think it says that she’s a caring person,” said Dana Pichon, a nursing major at USM receiving the Oseola McCarty Scholarship.

Pichon, Hendrix, and Johnson said they were all drawn to McCarty from the very first time they heard of her story.

“I thought it was very sweet, but at the same time, wow, not everyone does that,” said Pichon.

See, for them, this scholarship is about more than just the money. It’s a sense of pride knowing their names are forever attached to McCarty’s, pushing them to channel the same generosity and work ethic as she did.

“Being selfless, being able to give everything you worked for to someone that you don’t even know, and would never ever see,” said Johnson. “It’s just wonderful being able to go through that program knowing I was able to have her support even though she’s not here with us anymore.”

“I want to live up to her standards,” said Pichon. “I want to do what she did, and I want to improve on that if I can.”

McCarty’s name and presence loom large all-around USM’s campus.

From a life-sized sculpture of the Hattiesburg native to a dorm being named after her, McCarty is continuing to change lives through her spirit of giving.

“It’s just a great reminder of everything she did for this university and just what a great person she was,” said Hendrix.

“When a person does something like that, that doesn’t happen every day, so you should be able to memorialize that in any way you can,” said Pichon. “The fact that the university does have a statue and a dorm in her name, it’s a great thing because it keeps her legacy living, and people can still learn about her.”

McCarty passed away in 1999. She was 91 years old.

Although she is no longer here physically, her contributions continue to have a huge impact nearly three decades later.

“Because it’s an endowment, that fund will be here forever, supporting students forever,” said Mercier. “The gifts are invested and never spent, and then the earnings generated from the endowment are what we use to award scholarships towards students.”

As of right now, the Oseola McCarty Scholarship is awarded to more than a dozen undergraduate students at USM.

Just click on this link to find out more about the scholarship fund.

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