The most cherished gift of my college education was $5.
The second was $50 that came as the reward for having completed another school year, a gift from a childless great-aunt.
It was the third gift, though, that paid college tuition and bought textbooks, a quite unexpected gift from the publisher of The Macon Telegraph and News, Peyton T. Anderson Jr. His financial gift was a guarantee that, with a part-time job, I’d never have to drop out of college again.
The $5 that mattered most was my mother’s, an expression with money she hadn’t to spare that, together, we’d make it over the final hurdle.
I protested. I’d be fine, I told her. I had a job and Mr. Anderson’s support. I could make it. She insisted. We were in this together. That had always been the case.
By the age of 16, she had the first of her seven children. Before the last two were school age, she was alone, abandoned by a husband who, except for the infrequent drop-ins I came to hate, simply vanished from our lives.
Go, be done with us, but don’t raise a child’s hope that you’re staying in touch when you’re not.
From that day in 1957 until her death in 1995, she never left us. Until we could survive on our own, her strength kept us together. She gave us all we needed and more than she could afford.
I took the $5. It carried me through college. Peyton Anderson carried me, too.
He carried me, as he had carried others, starting with Tom Johnson, a poor Macon boy who rose to become president of The Los Angeles Times and chairman and CEO of CNN before retiring in 2001.
As with me, Johnson’s anchor was a mother’s resilience. “My family had no money,” he recalls. “My father had no regular job. My mother worked six days a week as a clerk in a small grocery store.
“My mother said to me many times: ‘Tommy, if you work hard and do right, you can become anything you want to be in life.’”
Tom and I returned to Macon this week to a grand house built atop Coleman Hill in 1836, now owned by Mercer University.
The location, with a vista that sweeps the city and beyond, was fitting for the occasion, the launch of a scholarship program by the Peyton T. Anderson Foundation.
Anderson cared deeply about Macon and those who lived there. At his death in 1988, the bulk of his estate, $26.6 million, passed to the foundation with instructions to serve the community.
The foundation’s board, looking for an appropriate way to mark the 20th anniversary of his death, readily embraced an idea by Executive Director Juanita T. Jordan, a former aide who has guided the foundation since his death.
Her idea was the Peyton Anderson scholarships. This week the first 15 recipients, all from Bibb County high schools, came together at the house, once called Overlook, there to view the promise of a brighter world ahead.
As the Macon paper noted the next day, “the students ranged from a valedictorian to those with lower grade-point averages who the trustees decided had great potential.” Scholarships are from $3,000 to $7,500, depending on need and college costs.
“We care more about their work ethic and determination to excel than grades alone,” said Johnson, a trustee. Recipients are for the most part students like Tom and me who, as his mother put it, try to “work hard and do right” through difficult circumstances.
If they work hard and do right, the Peyton Anderson lift will carry them through four, and possibly five, years of college.
A mother’s love lives. And so, too, does a good man’s heart.