Man gives away his entire fortune.

I take a fair amount of heat for posting news stories about Christians acting in a bad way while not saying much about the good things Christians do and there’s some truth to that. So, in the interests of balance, allow me to present to you a news story about Tom White, an 84 year old Irish Catholic construction millionaire who has managed to give away almost his entire fortune, some $75 million, and who hopes to literally be down to his last quarter when he draws his final breath.—The richest man in town

“Give me three good reasons why I shouldn’t,” he says. Then he proceeds to list three reasons he should. “I can’t take it with me, my kids are OK, and my wife’s taken care of.”

He has supported more than 100 causes over the years, but his biggest gift by far has gone to Partners in Health, the program made famous last year with the publication of Tracy Kidder’s book “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” The book details the work done in Haiti and other Third World countries by Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard professor and infectious-disease specialist whose work on AIDS and tuberculosis for the world’s poorest has been hailed as groundbreaking. White put up the initial money for the program and has steadily funneled tens of millions of dollars into it.

White has long been a quiet force in Boston. His company built Foxboro Stadium, the Charles River dam, part of the subway system, the Park Plaza Hotel, and the underground garage at Post Office Square. White was a confidante of Cardinal Cushing and served as the New England fund-raiser for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He has been on the boards of the Harvard Divinity School, Boston College, the New England Patriots, and the JFK Library. And for decades he has quietly been giving away money to various causes, especially those dealing with the poor. He put up seed money to help start Nativity Preparatory School in Roxbury, which offers children from impoverished homes a prep-school education.

“I kept going to the bottom tier, which is Haiti,” is the way White describes his charitable causes. Whenever his alma mater, Harvard, would call looking for money, he’d say, “For God’s sake, you’ve got $15 billion over there, and I’ve got people over here starving to death. You tell me what I should do.” Recounting this, White chuckles and adds, “I still give $1,000 a year so my classmates will talk to me.”

“Finally, about four or five years ago, it just got beyond me,” he says. “I don’t have money like Bill Gates. What I gave away was all I have, but it wasn’t all that much.” He says that he still has “a few hundred thousand bucks” in a charitable gift fund. As for Partners in Health, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become a major donor.

White’s giving comes from the heart, not the ego. When Time magazine named him “best philanthropist” in 2001, he said: “You’ve got the wrong man.” He says he loathes stories about “self-made men,” particularly from politicians. “All these guys brag that they did it all themselves. It’s a lot of baloney. Everyone gets breaks. Along the way, I’ve had a lot of breaks.”

“Did he tell you about the red-wagon lady?” Lois asks, and then proceeds to tell the story. For years, Tom has given money to a homeless woman who collects bottles and cans in the square and redeems them. One day, he asked her what else he could do to help her. “What I would really like is a red wagon because then I could pick up more bottles and take them to the store,” she replied. When he got home, he went to Sears and picked up a red wagon. “The next morning, he goes pulling the wagon up to Harvard Square,” says Lois, chuckling at the memory. “When she saw him coming, she burst into tears.”

Asked about it, White is dismissive. “I got a bigger kick out of it than she did.”

A trip to McDonald’s typically costs him a hundred bucks. He’ll search out the janitors and hand over $20 bills. “The woman cleaning the toilet can’t speak English, she has nothing, and no one gives her anything,” he explains. He also supports Sojourner House, a homeless shelter in Roxbury; Odwin Learning Center in Dorchester, which helps adults get into college; and afterschool and summer programs for poor kids in Roxbury.

Ask him why, and White, who attends Mass daily, replies: “I’m motivated a lot by what Jesus wants me to do, or what I think he wants me to do. And I think he wants me to help make the world a better place.”

I’ve already quoted way more than what I probably should have, but it’s a good story about a good man and I wanted to share it. We argue a lot about what a “true” Christian is around these parts, but if you were to ask me I’d say Tom White is probably one of the best examples I can think of. With all the bad news we talk about around here I thought it would make for a nice change to talk about some good news.

8 thoughts on “Man gives away his entire fortune.

  1. Oh yes, Les, thanks for sharing this.  An amazing man.

    You know, I sometimes think that people are the way they are, and religion doesn’t make them intrinsically good OR bad.  If anything, it may just end up being a conduit (or rationalization) for the way they want to be.  Sort of like what Bill Cosby reportedly said (and I’m doing an extreme paraphrase here) when someone told him that cocaine “amplifies your personality”:  “Yes, but what if you’re an asshole?”

  2. This man understands the real function of money.  Too bad we have to often resort to revolution or court to accomplish this with other rich white men.

    Now, where can i write this guy for my share ?

    .rob adams

  3. I like Geekmom’s take on this guy.  Some people are just good- they start that way and carry through, regardless of their religious affinity.  This guy sounds genuinely, dare I say, impishly, GOOD.  And he understands money for the fluid impermanent concept it is.
    This reminds me of something I heard a while ago from a Buddhist.  He said that it made no difference what religion a person adhered to, or whether or not they’d ever even heard of Buddhism- If they were enlightened they’d reach nirvana. 
    This Tom White may be a Catholic, but he sounds like a bohdisattva to me!
    Thanks for a great story, Les!

  4. I could comment on how when one hears stories about assholes who are Christians, their religion is usually cited as a contributing factor, and thus how it’s ironic that when one has a story here about a pretty spiffy individual who is a Christian, their religion is dismissed as irrelevant. But I won’t. 

    That said—it’s certainly inspirational.  I wish I had the guts—or, perhaps, religious motivation—to do this much for others.

  5. Their actions are what’s relevant, ***Dave, not their opinions concerning good or bad actions.

    The proof is in the pudding, as it were.

  6. I think ***Dave makes a valid point. I quoted White’s explanation on why he did what he did because it seems clear to me that his religion is indeed a factor in his good acts. Theories on what makes good people good and bad people bad aside, there’s no doubt in my mind that White took Jesus’ message to heart and is motivated by it.

    I think we do Christianity an injustice if we don’t acknowledge its accomplishments along with its failures and I do want to be fair about it. I’ve thought about this more since posting it and it’s given me a bit of an insight into what my personal beef is with many Christians and it’s not so much that they follow their religion as much as so many of them don’t. I plan on making an entry about this insight in a little bit so hold tight.

  7. GREAT story.  I think it is important to point out that the bible does have some good aspects and that religious folk need to learn to read and interpret.  Many things are clearly outdated and irrelevant to our times, but there are good messages that many christians ignore.

    Another example for you is Steven McDonald, a NY police officer paralyzed when he was shot in the neck while on duty.  I found this story last week after his yearly award was given to Jed Ortmeyer of the NY Rangers.
    A lot of it is how his faith gave him strength to survive, but what I really appreciated was this:
    “I spent the next eighteen months in the hospital. While I was there my wife gave birth to our son, Connor. At his baptism I told everyone I forgave the young teen who shot me. I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that this act of violence awoke in me-the anger, the bitterness, the hatred. I needed to free myself of those so I could be free to love my wife and our child and those around us.

    I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my tragic injury into my soul, hurting my wife, son, and others even more. It is bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury.”

    How come one of the simplest tenets of the Bible, love thy neighbor, is the hardest for people to fathom?  If I, an atheist, can figure that out you’d think the people who go to church on a weekly basis could too.

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