Celebrating Birthdays & the Joy of Giving

As a child growing up in the Arkansas delta in the shadow of the Mississippi River, I don’t remember ever having had a birthday party to which I was able to invite my rural neighbors, schoolmates and cousins. As the fifth of eleven children born to subsistence farmers, my parents could hardly afford to put food on the table on a daily basis let alone the extra expense of a birthday party for eleven kids. However, since my birthday, September 11th, fell in the middle of the cotton harvesting season, occasionally my parents were able to scrounge up enough money to buy the necessary ingredients for a four-layer chocolate cake to be enjoyed by the entire family. Of course, since we had no electricity there was seldom ice cream to accompany the cake. Even so, the taste and texture of the cake that Mama baked in our little cast iron, wood-burning kitchen stove exceeded my wildest expectations. I still remember the little “sample cake” she baked to make sure the ingredients were present in just the right amounts before placing the batter in those black iron skillets and placing them in the oven. Even though the stove had no thermometer, Mama seemed to know exactly how long to leave the cake in the oven and when to take it out---it was never a moment too soon! I can still see that big smile on Mama’s face as she gave me the first slice, always a tad bit larger than the rest, and wished me a happy birthday.

Perhaps it was because of the poverty stricken years of my youth that as an adult I never craved having a birthday party, nor bothered to give my wife and son my birthday wish list. For a long time now, I have had the financial wherewithal to buy gifts for myself or others without having to wait for holidays, birthdays, weddings or other special events to do so. The only time I ever acquiesced to a celebration of my birthday was when I turned 65 years of age. I informed my wife and our friends who were “secretly” organizing a party for me that I would attend as long as they agreed not to spend money on gifts I neither needed nor wanted, and that in lieu of gifts, funds would be donated to the Scholarship Endowment at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), the institution that I had the privilege of serving as Chancellor at the time. Instead of several hundred birthday cards, I suggested that one extra large card signed by everyone would be just fine and the funds saved could be donated to the scholarship fund. There was one other thing I wanted for sure, and that was a live-band that could play dance music suitable for all ages—including University students and ageing baby boomers like myself. On September 11, 2011, I danced to every tune until I was sweating more than I did as a cotton chopper during the days of my youth. Gifts from the party goers, combined with the match from my wife and me, yielded more than $15,000. With gifts before and since my 65th birthday celebration, the NCCU Charlie and Jeanetta Nelms Scholarship Endowment now stands at over $200,000 — which is comparable to our endowed scholarship fund balances at two other universities but lower at a third.

Fast forward to today, September 11, 2017, my 71st birthday. Rather than a party celebrating this important milestone in my life, I’ll have cake and ice cream with my wife and a few friends, and our only child who made the trip from Rome, Italy to join us. Now that’s a gift far more joyful than an Apple watch or a new mini iPad to replace the one that recently celebrated its tenth birthday!

Like countless others throughout the United States and around the world, I’ve grown weary of recent TV “Breaking News” stories about Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and I’m ready to move on to something other than President Trump’s latest tweet or stories about Special Prosecutor Mueller’s Russia investigation. Throughout the months leading up to my 71st birthday, I had the joy investing a combination of my time, talent and financial resources in causes that I care passionately about while reducing my tax obligations at the state and federal levels. As I turn 71 years of age, nothing excites me more than the opportunity to relieve the pain and suffering of students who attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities by writing a check to the United Negro College Fund, America’s oldest and largest philanthropic organization whose mission is to raise scholarship funds for needy but deserving college students.

In my view, every birthday that we’re privileged to celebrate is the “Big One.” And while I’m not sure what happened to the little cast iron stove that Mama used to bake those chocolate birthday cakes for my siblings and me, I do know that she bequeathed to each of us a philanthropic spirit and a belief that the more we give, the more we receive. As I pause to celebrate my birthday, I remember with joy my parents and the sacrifices they made to make me the person I am today. It’s a Happy Birthday, Mama. And Papa!

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