Lang in his office with the Presidential Medal
“Everything that happens in life that is worth noting
seems to be a coincidence,” muses Eugene Lang, prominent
businessman, and founder of the I Have A Dream Foundation (IHAD).
Indeed, fortune has favored the 85 year-old philanthropist
but one must recognize that his choices, ambitions, and persistent
dedication to education have played a significant role in shaping
his life’s trajectory.
“I live very intensively,” states Lang, “and
I couldn’t live otherwise. I’m here at 7:30 in
the morning, six days a week.” His Fifth Avenue office
at the Eugene Lang Foundation has the warmth and familiarity
of use. On one side stands a desk, smothered in papers—a
speech is being written. The walls are decorated with photographs,
cataloging the important and memorable moments of his life.
There is a picture of Albert Einstein with a much younger
version of himself sitting below the framed Presidential
Medal of Freedom awarded to him by President Clinton.
The story of Lang’s educational development and subsequent
philanthropic tendencies begins with a high school education
from Townsend Harris, and a dishwashing job at a local restaurant.
Back then, students at the high school completed a four-year
education in three years, were taught by college professors
and assured a free education at City College. Lang was content.
What would be his future alma mater, Swarthmore College,
was not even a possibility until a man by the name of George
Jackson entered the scene when Lang was 14. The two met by
chance, when the waiter who normally served Jackson, an antique
shop owner and regular customer, was indisposed and replaced
by Lang. It was Jackson who introduced Lang to Swarthmore
and pushed the young man to apply. The result was admission
with a full scholarship.
As a freshman at Swarthmore, Lang volunteered to be a club
leader at the Friends Neighborhood Guild, a settlement house
in the slums of Philadelphia. “I would come in on Monday
evenings,” he says, “the program involved 13 to
14 kids, my age, all African American and I had to think of
things that would keep them interested.” A dogfish dissection
in his Biology class gave him an idea; but what he thought
would be an interesting experiment for his kids at the Guild,
turned out to have a far greater impact than he had ever imagined.
About five years later, Lang, who by then had graduated with
an Economics degree, received a letter from one of the students
expressing how the dogfish experiment had made him re-evaluate
his life and return to school with the goal of becoming a doctor.
In fact, he wrote the letter after gaining admission to a university
as a pre-med student. “I can never forget that,” says
Lang with a brief pause, “it was a defining experience
in my life.”
Since then, Lang has been characterized by Forbes magazine
as “the quintessential entrepreneur,” and has fervently
supported small business interests. He has donated millions,
but perhaps one of his greatest contributions to education
is IHAD. During a commencement speech at PS121, Lang promised
a college scholarship to a group of 61 students provided they
graduate from high school. Learning that over 75 percent of
students would most likely drop-out, Lang realized that “the
big thing that I had promised them was not the scholarship
but figuring out some way to keep them in school.” As
the program developed over four years, he found that all of
the students had remained in school. In June 1985, the time
had come to go public. “All over the country responses
came,” says Lang, “I’ve never seen anything
like it.” What had begun as a single promise quickly
became a national enterprise, prompting Lang to organize
a foundation to secure its long-term needs.
Recently, Lang has developed two, six-year internship programs
in conjunction with the Museum of Natural History and New
York Presbyterian Hospital for aspiring scientists and medical
professionals in the seventh grade. “I have realized,” says Lang
with undeniable sincerity “nobody has enough money to
be able to pay for the sense of reward you feel when you see
opportunities that you’re not even conscious of giving
these kids suddenly blossom into young people who are really
making their mark in this world.”#