Walking around the Coppin State University campus, Florine Camphor looks like an octogenarian cheerleader, wearing a sequined hat, blue suit and gold shirt representing the school colors.
Nearby, her husband, James, 91, is spinning stories about a scoring record he still holds from his years on the campus basketball team more than a half-century ago.
University leaders say the Camphors — known as “Winky and Peaches” — are celebrities on campus. Everyone knows who they are.
They are Coppin’s top supporters, unlikely philanthropists who spent their careers inside Maryland schools and their lifetimes scrimping and saving.
The couple has donated $200,000 to the university in scholarships for some 200 students. Their generosity also comes in whispers to a graduate to call if he gets into money troubles and the creation of the “benevolent fund” for homeless students to buy books, food or bus fare. They have organized jazz shows and golf tournaments and nudged their classmates to give.
“I was taught early: The more you give, the more that comes back to you,” said Mr. Camphor, dubbed Winky as a kid for the way he flutters his eyelids.
“Coppin gave to me, and I have to give back to Coppin.”
Mrs. Camphor — who says the midwife misunderstood her mother’s craving after giving birth and scrawled “Peaches” on her birth certificate — said their giving is intended to make sure money never stands between a young person and a college degree. She started donating to Coppin as soon as she earned her first paychecks with her teaching degree. She worked as a reading specialist by day in Cherry Hill and Brooklyn and Clifton Park. By night, she kept records for a flower shop.
“If it hadn’t been for God and Coppin, I have no idea where I would be,” Mrs. Camphor, 82, said. “All I can do is help somebody along the way.”
The couple, who live in Windsor Mill, is what people in philanthropy circles call “sacrificial donors,” benefactors who make “thoughtful, calculated” gifts, said Alicia Wilson, incoming chairwoman of the CollegeBound Foundation, which helps low-income and first-generation Baltimore students earn degrees.
“It shows you don’t have to be rich to give,” Wilson said.
While former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent $1.8 billion gift to his alma mater, the Johns Hopkins University, drew widespread attention, the gift from the Camphors to Coppin represents a far greater share of their wealth. Bloomberg’s net worth is estimated to be more than $45 billion. The Camphors say their contributions to Coppin represent a double digit percentage of their total wealth. They declined to say exactly how much their assets are worth.
Bloomberg and the Camphors have the same goal for their contributions: to make sure students leave colleges with degrees, not loans.
Wilson said the Camphors’ giving to Coppin also has the potential to have an outsize effect on Baltimore by lifting families from poverty into the middle class with the career opportunities a college degree can bring. Most Coppin students are the first in their families to go to college and they are overwhelmingly low-income, according to data from the university administration. Many grew up in Baltimore, and nearly three out of four are raising children or caring for younger siblings.
“Their gift is transformational to those students but also our community in many respects,” Wilson said. “If our community loves our young people, our young people will love it back.
“For the success of our city, we have to have individuals supported by our communities.”
Coppin President Maria Thompson said the Camphors were among the first alumni she met when she came to the university in 2015.
“What I appreciate about them most is: Not only do they give of their money, it doesn’t stop there,” said Thompson, who has announced that she will leave her position and relocate to Tennessee in late June. “They get involved with the students. They make sure they get into personal conversations, find out what their aspirations are. … They are philanthropic in the true sense of the word.”
Founded in 1900, Coppin, a historically black college, now serves nearly 4,000 students a year from its 38-acre campus in Northwest Baltimore. Tuition and fees for in-state students run about $6,600 a year. Living on campus roughly doubles the cost.
A lot has changed since Mr. Camphor attended. He said that when he first started in 1948, Coppin had not yet moved to its current location and was still operating from the third floor of a city elementary school.
Growing up near Hollins Market, he said, he planned to be a mortician — though his childhood pastor wanted him to be a minister. His plans changed after he was stricken by double pneumonia and was told embalming bodies could kill him. So, he enrolled in Coppin and became captain of the first men’s basketball team (He still holds an unofficial school record 68 years later for scoring 50 points in a single game against Cheyney University of Pennsylvania). He earned an undergraduate degree in 1951 and pledged to teach school in Maryland for three years after graduation. He ended up spending 43 years as an educator, earning a peak salary of $89,000 as a principal.
Mrs. Camphor was raised in Sandtown-Winchester. She wanted to be a nurse but could not afford nursing school. She got a scholarship to Coppin and planned to be a teacher. When she graduated in 1958, she had a job lined up at a school in Cherry Hill.
Both raised by single mothers in West Baltimore, Mr. and Mrs. Camphor said they got into the habit of working and saving as children. Mrs. Camphor said she sold copies of the Afro newspaper and flowers for Mother’s Day. Mr. Camphor said he shined shoes.
“Money didn’t come easy,” Mr. Camphor said. “My mother always taught me, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and only what you do for Christ will last.’
“I tell people: Think for today, but plan for tomorrow. If you make $5, put $3 away — at least.”
The couple met in 1965 when they were both members of Coppin’s alumni association. They did not get married until 1980, after Mr. Camphor’s three children from a first marriage were grown. Mr. Camphor went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Coppin and was recently given an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the university. Mrs. Camphor earned a bachelor’s degree from Coppin and a master’s in education from Loyola University Maryland.
Montaze Cooper is the kind of student the Camphors are setting out to help.
Cooper, 18, left his mother’s home when he was starting high school and spent four years bouncing between his grandmother’s and aunt’s homes. He says he was getting into trouble, but made a change after his cousin was killed on the Baltimore streets. He started carrying a Bible, running track and making plans for his future.
Cooper graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and moved to the Coppin campus in August with a dorm room full of things he bought on his own from working at a McDonald’s and a local movie theater. On move-in day, he took out a piece of notebook paper and wrote down his goals: no procrastination, earn a 4.0, build relationships.
“I know for a fact, the plans I have for myself, I can’t do it by myself,” said Cooper, who is borrowing about $5,500 a year to attend Coppin. “There are things I want to accomplish. I don’t want to settle for less.”
Cooper could potentially be a candidate for the benevolent fund — or other scholarships.
Leonard Raley, president of the University System of Maryland Foundation, said even with investments in higher education that make community college free or resources such as federal Pell Grants, institutions depend on donors like the Camphors to help them meet student needs.
“The need is far greater than any resources that are currently available at our institutions,” Raley said. “We want students to graduate with little or no debt.