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Abe Pollin brought big buildings (Cap Centre, Verizon Center) and people (Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali) and teams (Washington Commandos, anyone?) to this area.
But he also brought hope.
“He was a businessman, that’s what the accolades were for,” said Tiffany Alston, an attorney in Upper Marlboro, upon hearing of Pollin’s death. “But looking back now, as an adult, I see that Mr. Pollin knew the quintessential meaning of philanthropy. The amount of time and money he gave of himself to this community, to me, it was just amazing.”
Alston met Pollin in May 1988. She was a fifth grader at Seat Pleasant Elementary School. Pollin was looking for some productive ways to spend the money he made from being owner of several pro sports teams in the DC market.
He showed up at Seat Pleasant Elementary with his friend Melvin Cohen and together made a big pledge to Alston and all 54 other kids in the school’s fifth grade.
“The plan was to tell kids that if they stayed in school, we’d pay for their college education,” Pollin told me in an interview a few years ago.
Seat Pleasant Elementary, Pollin and Cohen had been told by local educators, was the school most lacking in resources and hope. The kids there weren’t used to good fortune. So when he first made the announcement to the students and the parents who had been invited to hear Pollin and Cohen speak, folks weren’t sure what they had heard.
“I remember that moment very clearly,” Pollin told me about making the scholarship offer. “I was introduced; I told everybody what we were about—that if they stayed in school, we would pay for their college. And when I was done, there was complete silence.”
The Seat Pleasant principal then asked Pollin to repeat the announcement.
“When I said it again, everybody got it,” Pollin recalled. “Children were bursting out of the room, and parents started crying, and I started to cry, and everybody cried. That was a very emotional day.”
Alston’s mother was among those bawling. And she recalls trying to take advantage of everything that Pollin offered her and her classmates.
“It was so much more than just paying for college,” Alston now says. “Whatever the students needed, he provided. He had tutors. He took us to shows at the Capital Centre. He had us come to lunch with him. He took us to plays. We did things we never would have done if it weren’t for him. This expanded our horizons.”
The original class of 55 “adoptees” from Seat Pleasant Elementary eventually went up to 59, after four kids transferred to the school and Pollin and Cohen said, “Let ’em in!” According to the I Have a Dream Foundation, which monitored Pollin’s gift, 49 of those kids graduated from high school, and 39 went to a trade school or college on the owner’s dime. As of 2007, 17 had received at least one college degree.
Alston was among those who took Pollin up on his offer, and then some. Pollin paid for her undergraduate education at the University of Maryland, and her law school at UDC. She’s now a litigator with her own practice.
“He allowed me the opportunities I wouldn’t have had,” she says. “I’m a business owner now. I have a child now, and my child is in a private school, getting the best education possible. For that and everything, I thank him and his family for all they did for me. All they did.”