Hummel: A growing movement of pay-it-forward generosity

Lynn Hummel column mug
Lynn Hummel

Is something going on here or am I so determined to discover good news that I’m imagining a change in attitude?

Let me remind you of an incident you’ve read about. Last May, Robert F. Smith delivered a commencement address to the graduating class of Morehead University, a historically black college in Morehead, Ky. Smith was a graduate of Morehead U. and he had “done well.”

At the end of his address, he announced that he was paying off all school loans of the entire graduating class, “to put a little fuel in your bus” as he put it. It was estimated that his act of generosity would cost him about $40 million. One graduate had had her loans co-signed by eight members of her family, including her 76-year-old grandmother.

Are we hearing about more and more incidents of generosity?

My favorites are the anonymous gifts. Last year, just before Christmas, an anonymous donor paid delinquent taxes for 22 mobile homes in Cass County for homes in Fargo and West Fargo. Homeowners got receipts for payments they hadn’t made and when they called the tax office they were told somebody had paid the delinquencies in full. When the unnamed person paid the overdue taxes, he said it was a good time of the year and he just wanted to “pay forward a little bit.”


Then, a month later in January, an anonymous donor paid $28,672 to erase school lunch debt for the first half year in the Fargo public schools. Most of the school lunch debt is incurred by families having a hard time qualifying for free and reduced lunches but still having a tough time making ends meet. Also, there is a fund now at $6,800 being paid by a woman’s leadership group to cover lunch debt for the second half of the school year.

Generosity is not a recent invention, but I believe there is evidence of a growing movement. For example, we are reading about middle school and senior high school students establishing store programs where they have made student necessities such as toiletries, food, coats, caps and school supplies available for other kids in need and have established guidelines to ensure privacy in the process.

There are small gestures too. I recently drove through the fast food line at McDonald's and when I came to the pay window, I was told the car ahead of mine had paid my ticket (from a stranger to a stranger) and requested that I “pay forward.” Of course, I did that for the car behind me. The pay-out cashier said she just loved it when people do that.

The stories keep coming. A girl trying on a wedding dress was told that someone else trying on a dress at the same time had paid for her $495 dress. A guy at a lunch counter discovered his credit card had expired and he couldn’t pay for his sandwich. The cook at the counter had the sandwich put on his own credit card. The original guy returned later with a reward for the cook.

A Salvation Army kettle in Boston turned up with an $1,850 engagement ring and wedding band with an anonymous note from a widow who wanted to honor her late husband with this gift. That was followed by a cash gift of $21,000 from a widower with the request that the rings be returned to the widow. She never claimed them.

And more: A cart full of $214 in family groceries for a family Thanksgiving dinner was paid for at the check-out by the customer behind in the check-out line.

Another: A family in a restaurant with two special-needs children having their ticket paid by some other anonymous customers.

And, of course, we’re all familiar with fundraising dinners and events sponsored by friends for individuals with medical problems or families facing emergencies.


Or, one final example, a hospital patient in for tumor treatment put a duct tape sign on the window that said SEND PIZZA. The result was 20 pizzas being delivered to the hospital. Later scans showed the tumor was gone.

And the patient returned and “paid forward.”

I think the evidence shows that private generosity is growing. In spite of the harsh rhetoric all around us, good people are demonstrating that they care for one another and are willing to share. But they hope we will all “pay forward” to keep the movement moving.

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