Born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Russia and Hungary, Lang was clearly intelligent: he graduated from high school at 14, and started Swarthmore College at 15, graduating with a degree in economics. He then earned Master of Business and Science degree from Columbia, while also studying mechanical engineering at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. He made a fortune in business and investing — and then decided to give it away. $50 million went to Swarthmore, and $20 million more went to the Eugene Lang College, part of the New School in Manhattan. But he was probably best known for an on-the-spot offer he made in 1981 to 61 students at Public School 121 in Harlem — where he went to school as a boy — as they graduated from the sixth grade. “I looked out at that audience of almost entirely black and Hispanic students, wondering what to say to them,” he said later. “It dawned on me that the commencement banalities I planned were completely irrelevant.” He threw away whatever speech he had prepared, and talked off the cuff.
“I began by telling them that one of my most memorable experiences was Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and that everyone should have a dream,” he said. “Then I decided to tell them I’d give a scholarship to every member of the class admitted to a four-year college.” But he didn’t just make the promise and walk away: he mentored the students, helped with their problems, took them on field trips, and more. He decided that he needed to have a bigger impact, so he created the I Have a Dream Foundation to not just ensure those 61 kids had the best chance possible, but other kids, too: eventually, his support — and roping in more money from his friends and business contacts — helped more than 16,000 children with college costs. “When I made the original promise, the principal told me that maybe one or two students would take advantage of my offer,” he remembered. Thanks to his mentoring and financial support, at least 30 of the students were able to go to college. Some who didn’t, Lang helped find jobs. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1996. “Giving is not giving back,” Lang said. “There is no quid pro quo. Giving is self-fulfillment.” He died at his Manhattan home on April 8, at 98.