YOU'RE tempted to say, ``Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.'' His eyes twinkle like old St. Nick's. And millionaire industrialist Eugene Lang has grabbed headlines with his offer to 52 East Harlem students of college tuition ``on the house.'' ``Stay in school,'' he told a sixth-grade class in this community, where the dropout rate before high school approaches 90 percent, ``and I'll pay your way through college.''
But more than a timely do-goodism story for the holiday season -- ``Miracle on 42nd Street,'' say, which is the street where Mr. Lang made his fortune -- this is a philanthropic saga with a compelling twist. Beyond a one-shot handout affecting only immediate beneficiaries, Lang's idea addresses a more profound, long-term requisite of life throughout Harlem: the need to follow a dream.
``Tuition isn't the purpose here; the dream is the purpose,'' says the silver-haired Lang at his 10th-floor corner office here at Refac Technology Corporation. A good dozen community service awards speckle the walnut-paneled office. ``I told them you've got to have a dream, and this dream is something you've got to believe in -- it's something you have to keep faith with. It's not something that's going to happen overnight. It's an objective that you're going to have to work for.''
Perhaps a merry old soul when it comes to living for a good cause, Lang is not one to throw money down the hole of social reform. You can almost hear him say, ``These kids will get to college the old-fashioned way. They'll eeeeeeeaaaarn it.'' He made his offer five years ago to the graduating elementary class at PS 121, the same school he attended 50 years ago. All the students -- now high school juniors -- have remained in school and are doing well enough to qualify for college.
``Not one of them has gotten a single dime from me,'' says Lang, ``and they never will. Only the colleges will. Yet, they've cleared the hurdles against all the odds.'' He points out that in the normal course of events, only one or two would have made it to college age without dropping out. When he made the offer in 1981, he immediately set aside $100,000 -- $500 for each year at a four-year college for the 61 students then in the class (nine eventually moved away). He increased the amount every year th at each stayed in school, and the principal has accrued to where there is enough for a full college scholarship for each.
``Hard cash is really the least of it,'' he says. ``The thing that I was trying to do is to inspire a credible hope that life could offer them a great deal more than was apparent at the time if they would stick to the basic proposition that education is the key to opportunity.''
For five years, the dream has kept them off the streets, points out Johnny Rivera, who was appointed by Lang to head his I Have A Dream Project through Harlem's Youth Action Program. During that time, Mr. Rivera has acted as liaison between Lang and the 52 classmates -- all from low-income Hispanic or black families. Hired as a counselor to get to know and understand the students and their problems, Rivera has also directed them to such assistance as family counseling and special-subject tutoring.
``It's no joke that over this course of time they have lots of options like street crime and dope-peddling beckoning from every doorway,'' he says. ``These have kept their noses to the grindstone with hopes of something much better.''
He says the project has a ripple effect.
``In the immediate circle of the family, it motivates brothers and sisters both older and younger,'' he continues. ``It tells them there is an option they maybe never considered for themselves.'' It has inspired some jealousy and competitiveness among peers, he adds, ``but I see their buddies and classmates having higher ambitions and much more inclined to be thinking seriously about going to school.''
One student in the class, Jamil Quinones, says he always knew he had the ability to do good work in school but didn't know if his family could afford college if he stayed. But the Lang offer set it in stone. ``This has actually guided me and will be like a reward,'' he says.
``When I was younger, I didn't take college very seriously,'' says another student, Samantha Higgs. ``It wasn't that I didn't want to strive; it was that if there ever came a time to pay, my mother wouldn't be able. She's at ease now.''
Ask Lang what gave him the inclination toward philanthropic deeds, and he'll tell you the story of being given a nudge career-ward when just a 14-year-old dishwasher. One night in 1934, a waiter was ill, and Lang delivered a meal to George Jackson, a trustee of Swarthmore College.
Mr. Jackson was astonished that Lang, having graduated from high school at the tender age of 14, was not then in school. And Jackson became sufficiently impressed with Lang to see that he got hold of a Swarthmore catalog. He told Lang to apply and not worry about the tuition. Lang applied and to his great surprise was admitted with a scholarship. Fifty-one years later Lang is dean of Swarthmore's board of managers and the largest donor in the history of the college.
Besides this kindness of a stranger, Lang attributes his philanthropic ideals to his father, a Hungarian immigrant with strong social ideas. ``I believe very strongly in an obligation to give and to share,'' he says. ``This is part of my upbringing. No matter how little we had, the idea of sharing was basic, a given. And I always felt that it's important to give back what you take; it's the easiest thing to do.''
A successful entrepreneur while still at Swarthmore, Lang later started his own financial publication, ran a successful detergent business, and co-founded a firm that made airplane parts. His present company, Refac Technology Development Corporation, has helped establish 100 plants in 45 countries. ``I've always felt that innovation was an expression of one's own worth and purpose of being on earth,'' Lang says. ``You've got to make the world a better place or else get off it.''
It was the principal of PS 121 who saw a 1981 newspaper article on Lang's success. The principal asked him to speak at sixth-grade commencement. Lang's I Have A Dream Project hit the entrepreneur like a bolt of lightning while still en route to the podium.
``As I looked down from the stage, I said to myself, `What am I going to say to these kids? . . . What can I say that isn't patronizing,'' he recalls. Then he had a flash of inspiration. ``I took myself back to the day I heard Martin Luther King Jr. give his `I have a dream' speech. `The key to realizing a dream in the world today,' I told them, `is education.' ''
Lang says liberal arts education is critical to creativity and leadership. He says most schools ``deal with students as a class rather than as individuals'' and pick ``the lowest common denominator of acceptability. The result is: You don't have the individual pressures that will push a student to a better realization of his potential.''
One reason he thinks the I Have A Dream Project has had such success is his personal involvement.
``It makes all the difference in the world between a government agency or a board of education throwing a program and money at a problem and someone like myself, who personally is identified with it, with a heart and feelings. For them, anything that comes from the establishment is something to be regarded with disdain or suspicion. They feel that if they can act destructively against a program which is official, they take a heroic stance. But that has not been the case in the relationship with me.''
Lang hopes that other wealthy people or perhaps corporations -- provided they are represented in person -- will emulate his plan and adopt future classes. ``We have worked out a method, an organizational facility, for maintaining a liaison between the donor, the adopter, and the adoptees.'' That includes the Youth Action Project headquarters in Harlem, where students and donors can get together to discuss projects, have reunions, support groups, and tutorial sessions, and, as Lang says, ``deal with the
problems of playing catch-up ball that all of these kids must face if they are to be expected to have any possibilities of being able to deal with college.''
``Certainly, the biggest thing is to supply the right kind of motivation, the kind of motivation that will be able to resist the peer pressures of the community, which would normally take them into many antisocial activities. The fact is now that they're not on the streets -- they're in school.''