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.
“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.