Ordinary People, Extraordinary Gifts

When Albert Lexie saw a telethon in 1981 urging viewers to give to the Free Care Fund at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, he scraped together a $730 donation. Since then, Lexie has chipped in over $90,000 more -- saved over the course of many years from the tips he makes polishing shoes at the hospital and at local businesses. The 62-year-old, who lives on just $10,000 a year, e-mailed President George W. Bush recently to ask if he could shine the President's shoes. He is still waiting for a response. "He'd probably give me a $100 tip," muses Lexie, who shines more than 15 pairs of shoes on a typical day.

Lexie isn't alone in sharing with others what he could very well use himself. Lower- and middle-income Americans are the unsung heroes of philanthropy: Families that have household incomes of $100,000 or less contribute 59% of all philanthropic dollars, according to a study by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

A surprising number of the nonwealthy, like Lexie, take giving to an unusual extreme. People who give away vast proportions of their wealth, or even all of it, do so for a variety of reasons. Some have a heightened sense of social justice. They believe that wealth should be spread more evenly than it is, says Dennis Pearne, a psychologist who runs a wealth-counseling practice near Boston. Some come from the older generation of frugal spenders, who prefer to leave a legacy rather than fritter away their savings. Then there are those motivated by a sense of guilt, while still others may follow a purely capitalistic calling for many years, only to be moved by a midlife wake-up call to do good.

Joe Temeczko illustrates the postwar penny-pinching mind-set perfectly. The wiry, gold-toothed handyman, who passed through Ellis Island en route from Poland in 1950, used to roam his middle-class Minneapolis neighborhood in search of old appliances and toys that had been kicked to the curb. He would then fix what he found and give them to a church or a neighbor. Just days after September 11, Temeczko took the bus to the home of his lawyer, William Wangensteen, and changed his will so his savings would go to the City of New York. Two weeks later, Temeczko died of a heart attack. But the real surprise was that he left behind a fortune of $1.4 million that even his lawyer didn't know he had.

Cases of extreme giving can be found among people who openly amass fortunes as well. A midlife crisis might inspire them, say, to give away their sports car rather than buy a new one. In some cases, once some philanthropists start giving, they can't stop. "It can happen almost overnight," says psychologist Pearne. Philadelphia native Zell Kravinsky and his wife built their $45 million real estate fortune over three decades and gave nearly all of it away to public health causes in 2002 and 2003. Then Kravinsky donated one of his kidneys to a stranger; only 242 people have done the same since 1998, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Stephen Goldbart, co-founder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in Kentfield, Calif., says giving can become like a drug. "The more they do, the more it becomes important to them."

There are also radical givers among the silver-spoon set. Brown University grad Karen Pittelman, 29, gave away all but $15,000 of her $3.4 million in family funds in 2000 to create Boston's Chahara Foundation, which funds grassroots women's organizations. She is now writing a handbook for Resource Generation, a nonprofit that advises wealthy Gen Xers on giving away their money. Sudden Wealth Syndrome is the term Goldbart coined to describe a common affliction of people saddled with a windfall. "They may feel that they're not entitled to it, that it will have a negative impact" on their lives, he says. Then there's the social stigma that comes with being identified as wealthy. Experts say rejection by friends and a sense of social isolation is common.

Who wants to be a millionaire? Apparently, not everyone.

By Lauren Gard in New York

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