ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now a remembrance of a man who gave more than $100 million over his lifetime to education, a man whose philanthropy started seemingly on a whim.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Eugene Lang grew up in New York City during the Depression, the son of working-class immigrants. By 1981, he had become a wealthy entrepreneur. He was invited back to his elementary school, P.S. 121 in Harlem, to address the graduating sixth grade class.
SHAPIRO: He planned to tell the kids that if they worked hard they, too, could be successful. And then, as he told "60 Minutes" in 1986, he had a change of heart.
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EUGENE LANG: I suddenly realized that anything I had to say that was ordinary, conventional would be completely out of place, would be completely meaningless.
CORNISH: So instead Eugene Lang ended up telling the sixth graders and their families that he would support their dreams of going to college. That led to Lang's I Have a Dream Foundation, which has since helped some 18,000 students get to and through college.
SHAPIRO: Eugene Lang died last weekend. A memorial was held today in New York City. In attendance were many of the so-called dreamers who Lang supported over the years, including this man.
JUAN MARTINEZ: Juan Martinez, foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department.
CORNISH: Juan Martinez stopped by our studios to talk about his first encounter with Eugene Lang.
MARTINEZ: That was June 26, 1981, my sixth grade graduation from elementary school.
CORNISH: You remember it pretty...
MARTINEZ: Vividly. Oh, sure. I'm probably never going to forget.
CORNISH: Martinez was the elementary school's class valedictorian. He was 12 years old at the time and had no idea who Lang was. He remembers that he and his classmates were more focused on summer vacation than they were on their graduation speaker. But he does recall the speech that would change his life.
MARTINEZ: He started reading from - I think they were cue cards, if I'm not mistaken. And about the second or third card he just sort of put them aside and started reminiscing about attending Dr. King's speech at the National Mall when he was younger. And I think he was just sort of inspired and said something to the effect of, you know, if you get to college I'll promise to pay for it. Something to that effect. And me and my classmates were in the first, second and third row. We were all still chattering. But you can sort of sense that if you looked behind you that it'd gotten kind of still. And then there was just applause.
CORNISH: As you went on through high school and college, you went on to graduate from the Bronx High School of Science. You attended Mr. Lang's alma mater, Swarthmore, majoring in philosophy.
CORNISH: What kind of effect do you think he had on you and your classmates?
MARTINEZ: For me, he became an actuator, an enabler to open up opportunities that otherwise probably wouldn't have been available to me. He facilitated, not to be cliched, but a dream - for me, anyway. You know, I sort of saw him as an uncle, as a wise, rich uncle. And he gave me a perspective that I wasn't necessarily privy to at that time. I mean, his world was different than mine. But we were able to bridge that gap.
CORNISH: Can you recall anything that Eugene Lang ever told you or something that just stuck with you?
MARTINEZ: You know, for the last 30-plus years he's told me a lot of things. But I think one of the lessons he imparted upon me is that you need to be vested in your own development, in your own education. He basically said, you need to be the agent for the change that you want to see within yourself. And I thought that that was profound then. And it's definitely served me well now.
CORNISH: That's Juan Martinez, a member of the first class of dreamers whose education was supported by Eugene Lang. Martinez is now a foreign service officer with the State Department.
SHAPIRO: And we'll leave you with something else Eugene Lang said in that "60 Minutes" interview. He talked about how much students like Martinez meant to him and said, the chemistry of caring tends to be reciprocal. You give it, you get it.
(SOUNDBITE OF DNE'S "DRIVING A CAR WHILE LISTENING TO BILL BURR'S PODCAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.