She's 17 now, a senior at Baltimore City College, and for Evonne Gibson, that lucky break in the fifth grade seems "almost unreal."
Could it be that a total stranger pledged a college scholarship if she would graduate on time seven years later?
It was 1992. A retired city principal named Magdalene Fennell had been a volunteer mentor in Gibson's fifth-grade class at Hilton Elementary School in West Baltimore.
At the end of the school year, Fennell and her husband, Harold, called the 31 pupils together. We're investing $100 for each of you, the couple said. If you graduate on time and commit to college or a trade school, you'll share the proceeds.
Last week, the Fennells sent out the letters from their winter home in Sun City, Ariz. The original $3,100, augmented several times over the years by the couple, has grown to $25,000 -- by about 800 percent. Gibson and 21 other students still in touch with the Fennells each would receive a $1,000 scholarship, with $3,000 left for future grants.
"We wanted to see if people of modest means could make a difference in the lives of students," said Magdalene Fennell, 71. "We'd heard of millionaires doing it. But we thought people without a whole lot of money could be philanthropists, too."
The Fennells didn't just invest the money and forget about it. They formed the "Hilton Education Club," met at least yearly with the students, brought in speakers and visited the dozen or so middle and high schools to which the Hilton kids had scattered.
They exchanged birthday and Christmas cards.
"We got quite close to several of them," said Magdalene Fennell.
Though one of the conditions for collecting the money was that the Fennells be informed of address changes, the couple lost track of nine members of the class despite their best efforts.
Of the 22 on pace to graduate, all live in Maryland, 11 in Baltimore.
Jean Sandifer still teaches fifth-grade at Hilton.
"They were well-behaved kids, not all academically way up there, but some of them had a thirst for knowledge," she said of her Class of 1992.
Gibson, who lives in Edmondson Village, hopes to go to Chey- ney University in Pennsylvania. "I'm really appreciative that the Fennells came through after all those years," she said. "As I get closer to graduation, I see how hard it is to get a scholarship."
Marcus Roane, 18, left the city shortly after his last year at Hilton. He said the prospect of the Fennell scholarship helped pull him out of a ninth-grade slump at Randallstown High School. "Something kind of clicked for me in the 10th grade, and now I'm on the honor roll," he said.
Roane has exchanged letters with the Fennells since he left Hilton, he said, adding, "There's something really wonderful about what they did. We were just plain lucky."
Candy Randall, 17, echoes that emotion. "You know, there were two other fifth grades that year at Hilton," she said. "We were the ones that were chosen."
Randall, a senior at Milford Academy in northwest Baltimore County, hopes to attend Hampton University in Virginia, with the help of her scholarship. Like Gibson, she sees something dreamlike in the Fennells' largess.
"I never comprehended that they were really going to give us money," she said. "In fact, someone suggested to me once that the more kids who dropped out, the more I'd get. I'd never even thought of that. I just laughed."
The Fennells' good luck with investments allows them to spend four months each winter in Arizona, but they are hardly in the ranks of millionaire Eugene M. Lang, whose New York City-based "I Have a Dream Foundation" pledges college scholarships to hundreds of low-income students if they complete high school.
Harold Fennell, 75, is a retired superintendent of the old city Bureau of Parks. Since the Hilton investment, he has lost his larynx to cancer.
Said Magdalene Fennell, who was an English teacher and administrator in city schools for 30 years: "I used to think being a philanthropist meant being filthy rich. Since I became an adult, I have learned that a philanthropist is a person who donates money, property or services to needy people or socially useful purposes. In that sense, I feel Harold and I have become philanthropists.
"If I ever hit the lottery for millions of dollars, it would make little or no change in my lifestyle. I would give the money away."
Associated Black Charities of Baltimore will administer the Fennell scholarships. "The Fennells prove that you don't have to start out with a big bang to be a philanthropist," said Donna Stanley, the organization's executive. "They did it quietly over several years, proving that people of modest means can accumulate wealth and help other people with it."
Stanley said Associated Black Charities has other sources of college aid for students of limited means, "but we've never, ever seen an act of philanthropy like this one."
Pub Date: 3/30/99