Giving What She Never Had: Oseola McCarty, educational benefactor


“I don’t know that I have ever been as touched by a gift to the university as I am by this one. Miss McCarty has shown great unselfishness and sensitivity in making possible for others the education she never had.” – Aubrey Lucas, president, The University of Southern Mississippi.

Oseola McCarthy 2

The turn of the New Year is a time most of us resolve to do something. Something positive, usually involving our body masses. This time of year presents us with the perceived opportunity to begin anew.

That said, often our resolutions are focused on ourselves. ‘I’m going to lose 20 pounds.’ ‘I’m going to finish that novel I started writing three years ago.’ ‘I’m going to spend less time playing games on my iPhone.’

These resolutions brought Oseola McCarty to my mind. Oseola, a washerwoman who spent her life laboring, resolved to do something. However, her resolution didn’t have to do with herself. Her selfless resolution has enabled people she never met to fulfill their dreams.

That’s because Oseola McCarty, who died in 1999, became an unexpected benefactor of the University of Southern Mississippi when she created a trust to fund scholarships for African-American students from her area with her life savings. Oseola, who quit school after the sixth grade, resolved that others would have the education she lacked.

“I would go to school and come home and iron. I’d put money away and save it. When I got enough, I went to First Mississippi National Bank and put it in. The teller told me it would be best to put it in a savings account. I didn’t know. I just kept saving,” McCarty recalled in the USM press release announcing the gift in June 1995.

McCarty worked on laundry bundles, washing and ironing, her entire life. She originally charged less than a dollar per bundle for her labor. As she raised prices, Oseola began saving money. While she never married or had children of her own, in time, Oseola accumulated $150,000 in savings. She then worked with her bankers to set up a trust with the purpose of providing scholarships.

The gift made national and international news. But that wasn’t the point of the gift.

“I wanted to share my wealth with the children,” Oseola told The New York Times‘ Rick Bragg. “I never minded work, but I was always so busy, busy. Maybe I can make it so the children don’t have to work like I did.”

Instead of seeking a building name or other accolades, Oseola expressed her desire to attend the graduation of someone her money helped. The first student who received a scholarship from her formed a close personal relationship with Oseola. That student, Stephanie Bullock said, “It was a total miracle.”

As of January 2014, 44 students had received scholarships thanks to McCarty’s gift. Forty four lives have been touched forever by a five foot tall woman who didn’t finish grade school.

To me, Oseola’s story is a testament to what an ordinary individual’s resolve can achieve. It’s an inspiration for a new year.

Oseola McCarthy 1

Sources and Images: “Oseola McCarty,”; “Oseola McCarty donates $150,000 to Southern Miss,” by Sharon Wertz, University of Southern Mississippi Office of University Communications press release, June 26, 1995; “All She Has, $150,000, Is Going to a University,” by Rick Bragg, The New York Times, Aug. 13, 1995.; “California Students Make Donation to Oseola McCarty Scholarship Fund,” by Van Arnold, USM Office of University Communications, Jan. 30, 2014; The Philanthropy Roundtable’s Philanthropy Hall of Fame.

One True Woman: Catherine of Aragon, Queen and Renaissance Woman


“If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.” Thomas Cromwell describing Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of Aragon _Michel Sittow

A husband’s betrayal would come to define her life and history’s memories of her.

However, Thomas Cromwell said it best when he described Catherine of Aragon as both “wronged by nature” and as a woman who “could have defied all the heroes of History.” Far stronger in character than her infamous spouse; as well educated as any prince in Europe; and able to excel in perceived masculine sphere, it is little wonder that Catherine remains as compelling a heroine now as she was during her lifetime.

As Catherine wrote herself, “I choose what I believe, and say nothing. For I am not as simple as I may seem.”

History has done its best to simplify this complex woman. Catherine’s biography is well-known, thanks in part to the inaccurate period eye candy that is The Tudors. Yet, even without the love triangle that consumes so much of her story, Catherine was remarkable. Catherine’s love life was just one aspect of her life.

Prior to her second marriage to Henry VIII of England, she acted as the first female ambassador to a royal European Court on her father’s behalf in 1507. This despite an early widowhood, foreign court, and penny-pinching father-in-law who left her virtually broke. Not many fairy tale princesses can claim that kind of mettle.

Following her marriage to Henry, Catherine was a beloved, involved queen. scale charitable efforts. She corresponded with the humanist Erasmus and other great minds. Her piety earned her a nomination for “Defender of the Faith.” And, displaying her stripes as a feminist, she commissioned The Education of Christian Women by Juan Luis Vives. The text advocated for women’s education in age where most believed women had not business learning to read.

Catherine demonstrated her grasp of government as regent while Henry fought in France as well as by raising a defensive army to defeat the Scots at Flodden Field in September 1513. Although heavily pregnant, she rode north in full armor to rally her troops. Her husband would receive a gift of her fallen brother-in-law’s bloodied coat as proof of the victory.

In addition to these achievements, the queen was a devoted mother to her daughter, making sure she, too, received, an impeccable education.

Centuries later, I like to ponder what would have happened if Catherine – and not Henry – had been queen regnant.  What kind of ruler would she have been? What might this intelligent, capable, decent, progressive princess have achieved had not “nature wronged her by making her a woman” in the times she lived? Would history have recorded a ‘Catherian Age?’ Would history have been better for it?

As the Anne Boleyn troubles came to their climax, her speech defending her crown and marriage would become one of the great dramatic moments of history. It takes an uncommon poise and self-possession to declare before men of power:

“I beseech you for all the love that hath been between us, and for the love of God, let me have justice and right [ . . .] I take God and all the world to witness that I have been to you a true, humble and obedient wife, ever comfortable to your will and pleasure. I have been always well pleased and contented with all things wherein you had any delight or dalliance. I never grudged a word or countenance, or showed a spark or discontent. I loved all those whom ye loved, only for your sake, whether I had cause or no, and whether they were my friends or enemies. This [twenty] years or more I have been your true wife and by me ye have had divers children, although it hath pleased God to call them from this world, which hath been no default in me. And when ye had me at first, I take God to my judge; I was a true maid, without touch of man.”

I’ve always thought it takes a rare type of courage to fight for a cause – or a love – when all hope is certainly lost. Catherine did so, even though she would be banished from court. Denied the company of her only child by the man she loved, she died alone in 1536. It’s difficult not to be drawn to her, if for no other reason than the measure of her devotion and decency in the face of what must have been personal as well as political devastation. How else could she summon the grace to write on her deathbed, “mine eyes desire thou [above] all things” to Henry?

Catherine remains vivid 478 years later. She left as deep an impression upon her enemies like Cromwell as she did the English people who still bring flowers and gifts of her heraldic pomegranate to her tomb. Catherine remains the key heroine in Henry VIII’s romantic saga. And, I like to think that, as he aged, Henry, at least once, looked back on her with regret. And, perhaps a small piece of the love she deserved.

Catherine of Aragon _Lucas Hornebolte

Sources: Allison Weir The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII; Wikipedia, “Catherine of Aragon.” Images: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Images, Portraits (top) by Michael Sittow and (bottom) Lucas Hornebolte.

Tigress for Liberty: Noor Inayat Khan, WWII spy


“Liberte'” Last words of Noor Inayat Khan, Indian princess and intelligence officer.


Yesterday was V-E Day. May 8, 1945 saw the end of the war in Europe. While the official end of WWII was months away and would be decided in the Pacific, crowds celebrated in London, Paris, New York, and small villages.

The celebrations came at a terrible cost. And one heroine who helped bring them about was not alive to see them.

Her name was Noor Inayat Khan. Indian princess. Former pacifist turned intelligence operative. Spy for the British Special Operations Executive, an elite unit.

She was killed by a German firing squad in 1944 after being captured while on a mission in occupied France.

For me, Noor Inayat Khan embodies the common humanity that pitted much of the world against an obscene ideology fed by the blood of millions.

Khan was born in 1914, at the beginning of WWI. The daughter of an Indian father and American mother, Khan was raised to believe in religious tolerance and non-violence, according to a 2012 profile by the BBC. She grew up in England and France, was bilingual, and descended from a royal Indian family that had once resisted British imperials.

She trained as a musician like her father and studied medicine. In 1939, she published a children’s books.

When war broke out after Germany invaded Poland, she fled France and joined the British air force in its women’s division. As a wireless (radio) operator, she became “Nora Baker.”

In 1942, she was sent to France as England’s first female wireless agent. Code-named “Madeline,” she would singlehandedly rang spy rings in Paris. Her biographer, Shrabani Basu, interviewed in the BBC profile, said “She was this gentle writer of children’s stories, a musician, but she was transformed. She was a tigress in the field.”

In October 1943, Khan was captured, possibly betrayed by a double agent. Her interrogators would eventually classify her as extremely dangerous due to her ferocious resistance at the time of her capture.

Although she escaped custody in November 1943, she was caught and then held in shackles for 10 months in a German prison. Eventually, she and three other captured SOE agents were sent to Dachua. On Sept. 13, 1944, she and the others were shot and their bodies burned.

Despite interrogations and beatings, Khan did not reveal information about her fellow agents. After the war, she would be honored the George Cross and Croix de Guerre.

This woman’s heroism could have been overlooked. In many ways, her story is not different from those of other brave men and women who died to defeat the Nazis and their allies. Yet she is striking as a figure who crosses ethnic, religious, and ideological boundaries. She was a multi-ethnic Sufi who lived in multiple countries, and composed harp music. She was a faithful intelligence agent who stayed behind when many other spies had been apprehended or recalled. Known as a docile woman, she fought and attempted escape in what would become a deadly last dance with her enemies.

She embodies the heroism of people from all walks of life who came together to defeat terror and evil.

And her story continues: Unity Productions‘ film, “Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story” was successfully funded through its Kickstarter campaign Feb. 6, 2014. The film is slated to be a 60-minute docudrama to bring her story to the world screen. Take a first look here.

800px-Noor_Inayat_Khan_Pete Stean

Sources: “Noor Inayat Khan: The Indian Princess who spied for Britain” by Samantha Dalton, Nov. 8, 2012; “Noor Inayat Khan,” Wikipedia; “Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story,” Kickstarter Page, May 9, 2014; Images: Wikimedia Commons public domain images; Statue image by Pete Stean, Noor Inayat Khan memorial bust, London, UK, accessed through Wikimedia Commons.


The Mind Behind Mindy: Mindy Kaling, Comic Heroine


“I’m the kind of person who would rather get my hopes up really high and watch them get dashed to pieces than wisely keep my expectations at bay and hope they are exceeded. This quality has made me a needy and theatrical friend, but has given me a spectacularly dramatic emotional life.” Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)


From the moment I read Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, I decided Mindy Kaling was my long-lost best friend.

Like Julie Powell gushes in Julie and Julia, I want to be a bridesmaid in Mindy’s wedding. Only I can imagine it might be more hip and colorful even than Julia Child’s nuptials.

From the embarrassment of bad hair cuts and nerdy interests, Kaling’s words resonated with me to my less-than-ideal figured core. I picture us knocking back coffee, comparing doodle-covered notebooks as teenagers while I spew soda through my nose when she says something funny and then we both die of shame because the cute boys next to us watch on in horror. Then we go to her house for a gossip session with her mom before indulging in slumber party complete with New Kids on the Block sleeping bags and trivia contests.

But while I’ve laughed and winced along with Kaling’s anecdotes, that’s not why I admit to following her Facebook posts devotedly.

What resonated most with me was the quick, clever mind and gritty determination that has made Kaling an unexpected comic name.

This is a smart woman who went for it as a college student and ended up with nationally acclaimed stage play Matt & Ben. There’s no model-turned actor here. She attended Dartmouth as a Latin geek, has won numerous awards and Emmy nominations.

What Kaling possesses is grit, determination, and not a small ability to laugh at herself as she keeps going.

In a nation that still grapples with skin color, race, and sexism, she helms and holds center stage in her own series, The Mindy Project. Before the age of 35. If I only had half the determination and discipline.

Curtis Sittenfeld, writing in The New York Times, says, “Kaling can be snarkily hilarious or unsentimentally poignant, often within the same episode and even the same moment. As a writer, she’s both fast and prolific.”

I admire her stamina in tackling 18-hour work days on The Office and her ability to launch and star in a successful show of her own.

But, it’s her writing, style, and honest but discreet voice that calls to me. She is a one-of-the-kind in an industry that so often plays to cookie-cutter storylines and stereotypes.

Producer Greg Daniels, quoted in Sittenfeld’s 2011 article describes her by saying “Your average writer, when they get really good, I know how they got it . . . I can see the steps. But I love how with Mindy, I don’t see how she does it.”

As soon as it comes to Netflix – or I can afford cable – I plan on a ‘Mindy’ marathon.

(And, Mindy, if you’re out there, you are abjectly amazing!)


Sources: Images – “The Concerns of Mindy” by Mindy Kaling; “Mindy Kaling” Facebook page; Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling; “A Long Day at ‘The Office’ with Mindy Kaling” by Curtis Sittenfeld, The New York Times, Sept. 23, 2011

Power, Ploy, and Majesty: Nzinga, Angolan Warrior Queen


“A really strong woman accepts the war she went through and is ennobled by her scars.” Carly Simon, American singer


Elizabeth Tudor, Gloriana, Queen of England, gives her name to an entire age of history.
Renowned for her intelligence, political savvy, and ability lead a nation, she is a staple of women’s history.
While we celebrate the glories of the “Elizabethan Age,” another equally compelling and canny queen lived a continent away.
Her name was Nzinga, queen of Ndongo and her story may be even more fascinating than the Virgin Queen’s.
Nzinga’s story is one of the best documented of any African ruler’s in the centuries before the post-colonial era.
Born into a royal family that ruled over what is now modern Angola, Nzinga was first noted by the Portuguese as they sought to increase their hold over central Africa and its all-important slave trade.
Serving as an envoy for her royal brother, Nzinga’s first encounter with the Europeans showed her mettle early.
According to a well-known legend, Nzinga was not offered a seat when meeting with the Portuguese Governor João Correia de Sousa. Not one to stand, she commanded a servant to kneel. She negotiated from her servant’s back as an equal to the Europeans before her.
After inheriting the kingdom of Ndongo in 1624, she would go on to wage active war against the Portuguese, winning battles, laying siege to their fortresses, and allying herself with the Dutch, Portugal’s rivals.
She issued edicts and wrote letters. She led troops into her sixties.
When she was driven out of her ancestral lands, Nzinga founded the combined state of Ndongo and Matamba. When not sparring with the encroaching slave traders of Europe, Nzinga resettled runaway and former slaves. She survived coup attempts. She traded and built her kingdom. She would live into her eighties.
Today, she is regarded as a leading heroine in Angola. Women are often married near her memorial in Luanda, Angola, the country’s capital, where a street also is named for her.
“They believe that going to the statue and taking pictures there after getting married in a church legitimizes their connection and history to Nzinga,” says Linda Heywood, a professor of African-American Studies at Boston University told Public Radio International in July 2011.
So, why aren’t our daughters learning about this remarkable woman?
An English queen who inspired her kingdom to resist the Spanish Armada is routinely celebrated.
It would only be fitting to honor the Angolan queen who resisted Europe’s quest for conquest in the same way.
And it would be humbling to witness the Thursday and Friday weddings in the shadow of Nzinga, Queen of Andongo.
Sources:; “Ana Nzinga: Queen of Ndongo” The Metropolitan Museum of Art; “African Queen” Public Radio International interview with Linda Heywood by Marco Werman, produced by Zuzanna Sitek

Judo’s Nonagenarian Mistress: Keiko Fukuda, martial arts master


“All I did was judo. … This was my marriage. This is when my life destiny was set. I just never imagined how long this road would be.” Keiko Fukuda, first woman to achieve a tenth-degree judo black belt.


While dealing with a host of issues these past two weeks – work overload, personal issue overload, cold overload – I found myself attempting to channel a Zen mistress’s attitude about the world.

I desired to breathe and overcome my obstacles, one at a time, one hurdle at a time, one supreme moment of self-control at a time.

Keiko Fukuda’s image was often in front of my mind’s eye. Not exactly Zen. But inspiring nonetheless.

While it took overcoming deeply ingrained sexism and over ninety years, this martial arts heroine eventually reached her goal – to become the first woman to receive a tenth degree judo black belt.

If this diminutive powerhouse could meet her goal, I could get through the pile of insanity on my desk and myriad of difficulties associated with my day-to-day existence of the past two weeks.

Keiko was born in Tokyo in 1913 at a time when most Japanese women aspired to care for home and family. Despite traditions in Japanese myth and folklore of warrior women and instances of women warriors in the samurai class, it’s unlikely that her mother looked in her daughter’s cradle and dreamed Keiko would be able to flip a man several times her weight.

But, then again, with a samurai grandfather who taught the father of what we now know as the sport of judo, maybe her mother did have an inkling of her daughter’s potential.

Keiko was trained by Kano Jigoro in the 1930s, at a new school he had founded. According to her 2013 obituary from The New York Times, when she discovered she would have to give up the sport as part of an arranged marriage, Keiko gave up on the marriage instead.

I can just picture her practicing under the watchful eye of Kano. I admit he reminds me of Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi.

While she would honor her teacher by demonstrating judo internationally, it wouldn’t be until 2011 that she reached the tenth level after decades of sexism stalled her rise through the judo ranks. At the time, she was 98 years old.

In the mean time, Keiko continued to demonstrate her passion. She founded Soko Joshi Judo Club in San Francisco, where she eventually settled permanently as an American citizen. She wrote two autobiographical books and was the subject of Mrs. Judo, a film about her amazing life.

The school still exists to this day and, according to its Web site, the school honors Keiko’s motto through its teaching:

“Be strong. Be gentle. Be beautiful.”

Those were certainly heroine’s words to live by these past few weeks. I hope I and others continue to live by them each day as well. And Mrs. Judo is now most definitely on my To-View list.


Sources: Soko Joshi Judo Club Web Page; The New York Times “Keiko Fukuda, a Trailblazer in Judo, Dies at 99”; Timeout Japan, “Keiko Fukuda: Judo 10th dan at 98 years old”; Mrs. Judo Web Page

Want to watch Mrs. Judo? Check out the trailer!

The True Snow Queen: Josephine Diebitsch Peary, Arctic Explorer


“The short time I have been here has widened my horizon vastly, and among the many striving for fame and fortune or both, I feel myself overmastered by a restless desire to do something.” Robert Peary, Arctic Explorer


Hans Christian Andersen published his iconic fairy tale “The Snow Queen” in 1845.

I can’t help but wonder if Josephine Diebitsch Peary ever read it.
During her adventures alongside husband Robert Peary, the Arctic explorer once commonly credited with being the first man to reach the North Pole, it would have been easy to picture the frozen monarch presiding over her icy kingdom.

The daughter of a linguist at the Smithsonian Museum, based on the photos I’ve seen of her, “Josie” as family called her, was already going beyond the borders of the world many women knew in her day.

Her grandson, Ed Stafford, notes “She also had a sense of adventure and strong opinions of her own.”

She was a well-bred Victorian lady who would don a fur-lined parka and follow her husband to the snows of Greenland many times. She could shoot, hunt, and maintain her good humor in harsh conditions, although Inuit undergarments proved too much for her. In fact, she would give birth to the couple’s daughter while on expedition, far from home and many creature comforts. And, in the days of no epidural to boot.

In between her first journey to the Arctic in 1891 and her daughter’s frost-accompanied birth in 1893 on another expedition, “Jo” had time to write and publish My Arctic Journal. An excerpt featured by Bowdoin College’s MacMillan Arctic Museum – her husband’s alma mater – illustrates that remarkable character of this woman:

“Could the walls talk they would tell of some very pleasant hours spent there by the members of the North Greenland Expedition of 1891-92, and of many months of real solid comfort and happiness enjoyed by the woman who, when she left home and friends, was told to prepare to endure all kinds of hardships?”

Was it this self-assurance or strength of spirit what drew her explorer husband to her? Did they share a restless desire to go beyond the snowy horizon?

Josephine would publish The Snow Baby, a book chronicling her daughter’s birth. She and the baby, along with other members of Perry’s team would be stranded after their ship met an iceberg hundreds of miles away from Peary’s camp in 1900.

Even today, I believe many of us would be hard-pressed to camp out on the Greenland coast, far from civilization and our loved ones with a child in tow.

While it may be easy to define Josephine’s adventures as part and parcel to her husband’s quests, she was already leading a heroic life of her own before she met him.

Prior to becoming Mrs. Peary, she was valedictorian of her business school class and was working at the Smithsonian, often filling in for her linguist father.

In their decades of marriage, she often endured years of her husband’s absence. Not one to sit at home, she spent her time raising funds for Peary’s work, charming donors, and hand-stitching a flag he would carry with him as he continued his explorations while raising her children and sadly, burying one by herself.

She survived meeting her husband’s pregnant Inuit wife with grace. Jo continued to be Robert’s rock, according to all sources, believing in his dreams as much as he did. Her grandson writes, “Jo Peary literally gave the best  years of her life to Robert Peary’s  attainment of the Pole for his country. And equally literally in my view, with all his iron will, skill and courage, he could not have succeeded without her.”

What’s more is the “Snow Queen” of Eagle Island – the couple’s summer home and Maine historic site today – was recognized for her own achievements even in her own time. In 1955, the year Jo Peary died, the National Geographic Society awarded her its highest honor, the Medal of Achievement.

And, more touching to me in some ways, is the recollection of her grandson when he says of this incredible heroine, “Jo Peary has left this world, but not the hearts of her progeny. At last count some twenty men, women  and children proudly carry the Peary name—and  it is not entirely for the great admiral who discovered the Pole.”

She, and others, would prove that women could as easily rule the Arctic as their male counterparts. She really embodies the best of what one could image a “snow queen” to be.


Sources: Ed Stafford, “Biography of Josephine Peary,” Peary’s Eagle Island; “Josephine Peary,” Bowdoin College’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum; Patricia Erikson,”A Woman in Full” Portland Monthly, 2009; Wikipedia; Images are in the public domain