Irving WassermanIrving Wasserman was on a mission. His overarching concern in life was the national debt. He had a great mind for numbers and watched the interest rates and markets closely. He was sure that with wise economic policies and habits, he could personally make a difference, that if he lived frugally enough, he would be able to save money until the interest from the accumulated principal would offset our government spending. He had been mocked and shunned all his life, but he was determined to eradicate the national debt for his own self-respect.

I first saw Irving striding hurriedly past the Breakthrough Center for the Homeless shouting profanity at no one in particular. He was very odd looking. His legs were long and lanky and his clothing worn and dirty. The waistline of his pants was hiked up to his chest and the bottoms of his pant legs ended high above his ankles. A few days later, I saw him again peering through the storefront window.

"Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?" I asked. He seemed pleased to be treated with respect and soon became one of our regular guests.

As Irving began to trust me, he told me he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man and was receiving a monthly diability check. He had been institutionalized for many years and had been given shock treatments. He spoke of being sexually assaulted in the state hospital and again out on the street after he was released. He was the object of frequent torment from neighborhood gangs. His quick pace and use of profanity were his only weapons of defense.

Clearly, Irving was very alone. Breakthrough became a family for him. He enjoyed talking about current events and the world economy. Sometimes he would make perfect sense; other times he would release a string of inflammatory accusations for no apparent reason, or become enraged over things that seemed insignificant. Conversations were unpredictable, but always interesting.

Irving was very particular about saving money. Once a year, he brought his dirty laundry to Breakthrough in a worn potato bag so he wouldn't have to put his quarters in a commercial washer at a Laundromat. He stuffed his pockets with used paper towels from the bathroom garbage to use for toilet paper at home so he could save money. He regularly ate at neighborhood churches and soup kitchens so he wouldn't have to buy groceries or use the gas to cook on his stove.

He lived by himself in a tiny basement apartment where the drain backed up sewage when it rained. The apartment hadn't been painted or renovated in years. Irving wanted it that way because he didn't want the landlord to raise the rent. He even asked us to help him move his stove out to the alley for the garbage men to pick up, because he didn't want to pay the monthly gas bill to keep the pilot light on.

He asked me if he could have his bank statements sent to my attention at Breakthrough in case something ever happened to him. Every month, we would review his statements. I soon began to notice a pattern of deposits for five cents or a quarter. When I questioned him about it, he told me he sometimes found loose change on the sidewalk and he would immediately deposit it at the local bank. "I can't trust myself with money," he'd say.

One Thanksgiving, I asked Irving to join our family for a traditional turkey dinner. Since I knew Irving was a diabetic, I picked up a package of sugar free ice cream sandwiches for his dessert. Irving ate the ice cream with great pleasure as the rest of us ate our pumpkin pie with whipped cream.

As our guest were preparing to leave, I handed Irving the rest of the ice cream sandwiches for him to take home. He accepted them gratefully.

The next morning Irving was banging at my door. He shoved the ice cream at me and growled, "Here, take these back. I can't eat them. They make me want to have them all the time."

Irving was determined not to let simple pleasures distract him from his goal.

One day, Irving walked into my office as I was finishing up a grant proposal to a community foundation. I was asking for support for our employment training program. "Listen to this, Irving." I said. "If we help someone get a job who has been receiving welfare, we save the government six thousand dollars a year in welfare benefits that would have been paid out, and in turn the newly employed worker will pay four thousand dollars in income taxes. That's a benefit to the government of ten thousand dollars per year per person that we help employ, not to mention the savings if the worker is receiving employer health benefits instead of relying on government-supported healthcare."

Irving reviewed my numbers with clear interest. I could tell his mathematical mind was projecting the savings over multiple years and multiple employees.

A few days later, Irving asked me to help him find a lawyer who would set up a revocable living trust for his estate. Someone who would not require him to pay for their services!

He said he knew he didn't have long to live and he had decided he wanted to give his savings to Breakthrough to be used for job training for the homeless and mentally ill. A year later, Irving was hospitalized with terminal cancer and hepatitis C, and he died shortly thereafter.

By living frugally Irving had saved seven hundred dollars per month from his disability checks and had purchased government bonds every quarter for fifty years. With his gift to Breakthrough of five hundred thousand dollars, this eccentric man, who had been forgotten by many, became our largest donor. His legacy has lived on through the changed lives of people who have been trained and employed because of his gift.