A Thoughtful Giver
At Swarthmore, Eugene Lang ’38 is legendary. His gifts have created three buildings—the Lang Music Building, the Eugene and Theresa Lang Performing Arts Center, and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility—as well as the Theresa Lang Garden of Fragrance, student financial aid funds, endowed professorships and staff support, and the 30-year-old Lang Opportunity Scholarships.
Lang funds not only the scholarships but is also an active mentor, visiting the scholars on campus one Saturday each semester, making himself available for advice by phone, and maintaining close connections through the decades with his former scholars.
“We all need heroes,” said Salem Shuchman ’84, one of the first Lang Scholars, “and Gene is mine.”
To honor Lang, on Feb. 19, the College hosted a lunch featuring speakers representing the organizations he founded; a symposium on social responsibility and artists as agents of social change; and a celebratory dinner. (watch: Eugene Lang talks about Swarthmore)
Maurice Eldridge ’61, executive assistant to the president and vice president for community and College relations, led the committee that planned the event. “Gene lives a life in devotion to the well-being of others, an example of ‘letting your life speak,’” Eldridge said.
Scores of “Langs” attended, recalling with gratitude the Lang Opportunity Scholarships that set them on their life paths. The 30-year-old scholarships encourage students to design and initiate service projects in the United States and abroad. Also present were nine members of Lang’s family, including his children Jane Lang ’67 and her brother, Stephen ’73, H’10; Jane’s daughter Jessica Lang McGrew-Kosa ’92; and Stephen’s son Noah ’10.
Vincent Jones ’98, senior program officer of the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles, said the Lang Scholars program instilled in him the value of “strategic philanthropy”—investing in young leaders and in projects that can ripple outward to benefit many. As a champion of young people who think big and are prepared to act, Lang is a “thoughtful giver,” Jones said.
Indeed, the philanthropy of Eugene Lang, a self-made businessman who led REFAC Technology Development Corporation, has launched generations of civic engagement. The Lang Opportunity Scholarship Program alone has funded 164 student projects in 30 countries since its inception.
In addition to his long involvement with Swarthmore, Lang founded the I Have a Dream Foundation, a landmark program supporting low-income students starting in elementary school through college, and Project Pericles, a national organization of colleges and universities working to include social responsibility and participatory citizenship as essential elements of their educational programs. For his far-reaching efforts, Lang received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1996.
At the dinner in his honor, President Rebecca Chopp said, “Gene has supported and inspired the heart of our campus—the faculty and the students … he has been a prophet of our aspirations, our hopes, and our dreams.”
Lang, who came of age during the Great Depression, has demonstrated that aspirations need to be met with careful thought and hard work. At the first Lang Scholars breakfast in 1982, recalled Shuchman, Lang asked “probing questions that left me thinking for many hours afterward…. As a mentor, he didn’t tell me what to do, but through his questions he sparked new ideas. The notion that you can achieve what everyone tells you cannot be done changed my life forever.”
That lesson motivated symposium panelists Gayle Isa ’93 to launch Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative, Lourdes Rosado ’85 to pursue public interest law, and John Alston, associate professor of music, to found the Chester Children’s Chorus. Their Lang-funded work begins to pay it forward, said Alston. “My students are beginning to learn what it’s like to be in charge, to tell the adult in charge what they think,” he said. “They must have practice as children at being in charge so they can talk to mayors and other leaders in their adult lives.”
For Teya Sepinuk, associate in performance in the Dance Program, the impact of social change is rooted in storytelling. As executive director of the Theatre of Witness Programme, Sepinuk has told through performance art stories of the elderly, prisoners serving life sentences, and the people of war-torn Northern Ireland. She has worked with Lang Scholars on her projects and considers the sharing of stories “the chance for social change to begin . . . when we hear with the ears of our hearts.”
Lang’s story starts with Swarthmore, which he has called his “lodestar.” He credits the College for considering visionary ideas and says he is proud to have leaders from other schools ask: “How does Swarthmore deal with this problem? How does Swarthmore handle it?” At the same time, Lang recalls his late wife Theresa as a “constant source of inspiration.” “Everything I’ve done,” he said, “I’ve done because she was always by my side.”