Year of Altruism Inspires Community Activism in Greenville, S.C.

Year of Altruism MLK

Year of Altruism participants celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with a lunchtime lecture featuring Cynthia King, associate professor at Furman University in Greenville, N.C.

To finance his advanced degree, Donald Kilburg (LAS ’68, MBA ’74) worked at DePaul’s career placement office in the early 1970s. Hundreds of students passed through his doors seeking advice, but he remembers Rabbi Marc Wilson’s (LAS ’70) visit vividly. “His mother had her heart set on him continuing his studies by attending law school so that he could become a ‘rich Jewish lawyer,’” he recalls. “But [Wilson] felt another calling, a calling to be a rabbi.” Wilson left Kilburg’s office with a strategy for speaking to his parents and never sought Kilburg’s career advice again.

Twenty-five years later, the pair reunited in Greenville, S.C., at a comparative religion course Wilson was teaching about Judaism at the local Catholic Church. “When he spotted me, he exclaimed ‘Don Kilburg from DePaul University?’ And I responded, ‘Marc Wilson from DePaul University?’ And he shot back with a big smile, ‘Yes, and my mother still hates you!” Kilburg laughs.

Today, nearly 45 years after their chance first encounter, the pair is collaborating on the Year of Altruism, a series of events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a night in which Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues were destroyed, more than 90 Jews were killed and 30,000 were transported to concentration camps at the hands of Nazi forces in Germany and Austria. However, instead of focusing on the atrocities of the Holocaust, the Year of Altruism chooses to honor those who risked their lives on behalf of the persecuted, both then and now. “Altruism is a universal story about how, despite our cynicism and how bad the world can be, there’s still a critical mass of people who do good for no expectation—and sometimes even put their lives at peril in order to do it,” Wilson says.

Together with Greenville’s Furman University, the Year of Altruism is hosting events throughout the 2013-14 academic year. “We wanted to do something that recognizes positive, altruistic behavior in the community in memory of those who were previously victims,” Kilburg explains. Sample programming includes “One Voice: A Black History Narrative,” a presentation highlighting speeches of influential African-American leaders; “The Spirit of ’45,” which honored World War II veterans by celebrating the accomplishments of that generation; and “A 50-Year Retrospective of Peterson v. Greenville,” which examined the impact a segregation case could have on both the local and national civil rights movements. A concert presented by the Greenville Symphony Orchestra formally recognized the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht in November 2013. “It was a commemoration of the anniversary, but at the same time, it was an affirmation of the altruism and the uplift that was left behind, that the Holocaust couldn’t stifle,” Wilson notes.

Although there are only a few months left in the Year of Altruism, Kilburg and Wilson show no signs of slowing down. “There’s enough evil in the world,” Kilburg says. “We all have to do what we can do to fix it. We’re trying and hopefully others will too.” Wilson adds, “We see ourselves as Johnny Appleseeds. We plant seeds of altruism and we fertilize them. Then, we try to find people in the community that will tend to the growing plant or tree.”

Year of Altruism logo

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