Abe Pollin is gone, but still giving. Just ask Tiffany Alston.
More than two decades ago, Alston was among a bunch of Prince George’s County kids that the sports and development mogul “adopted” in one of the most ambitious do-gooder deeds in a life loaded with ’em. She is about to become a member of the Maryland House of Delegates after her first run for public office. Alston says she never would have made it to the statehouse without Pollin.
“I’ve been thinking about Mr. Pollin a lot lately,” says Alston. “This is a big deal.”
Private donations in public education have been talked up a lot around here lately, with millions of corporate contributions to D.C. Public Schools allegedly contingent upon Michelle Rhee’s continued employment. Pollin, innovative in so many areas of entertainment—he pioneered computer ticketing, premium seating options and arena video screens, for example—was way ahead in the area of the education reform, too.
Back in May 1988, Pollin came to Seat Pleasant Elementary School and spoke to all of the fifth graders. Along with friend Melvin Cohen, he’d been looking for a project that would help local kids. It turned out that the school, not far from the Capital Centre arena where Pollin had made a big chunk of his fortune, was among Maryland’s least affluent and worst performing. Addressing a school cafeteria full of 10-year-olds and some parents, he announced that he’d pay for the college tuition of anybody there who graduated high school.
In subsequent years, this sort of charitable big splash, stereotypically with a rich old white guy funding the higher education of a class full of non-rich non-white kids, became trendy. At the time, the concept was still novel. I asked Pollin in 2007 what he recalled about making his speech at Seat Pleasant, and he said that his offer met with “complete silence” from the fifth graders and some parents in the lunch room.
So, Pollin repeated his pledge to pay for every kid’s college, and the message sunk in.
“Parents started crying,” he said, “and I started to cry, and everybody cried.”
Alston now says she and her best friend in the class, Nefetari Smith, didn’t grasp the magnitude of what Pollin was giving them. “We were just kids,” she says.
But she’ll never forget watching her mother and Smith’s mother sobbing and hugging each other in the back of the room.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m so embarrassed! Won’t they just stop crying?’” Alston says.
Pollin didn’t just put a big pot of tuition money in front of the kids; he also worked to help them get from fifth grade to graduation so they could dip into it. Pollin arranged for tutoring and mentoring via the D.C. offices of the I Have a Dream Foundation. He arranged field trips around D.C., lunch dates with him, and free tickets to concerts and sporting events at the Capital Centre.
“Not every elementary school kid from Seat Pleasant got to power lunch with a millionaire,” Alston says. “He gave us amazing opportunities.”
Pollin, as pledged, paid for Alston’s undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland at College Park.
She’d wanted to become a lawyer since she was a little kid, and heard tales of relatives being mistreated by Prince George’s County police. She told Pollin about her goals. He paid for her to get a law degree from the University of the District of Columbia.
Alston kept him updated on her career, and offered profuse gratitude, during occasional lunch meetings with him after she started her own law firm in Upper Marlboro.
When Pollin died last November at 85 years old, his family invited Alston to tell her tale at his memorial service.
“After Mr. Pollin passed away, I started thinking about how life is short,” she says, “and about things I wanted to do that I hadn’t done.”
Public service was at the top of her wish list. As it turned out, a seat in the House of Delegates for her home district had just opened up.
Alston talked with Smith, her Seat Pleasant classmate and lifelong pal, about taking a chance at politics. Smith had taken a slower route than Alston in taking advantage of Pollin’s largesse—which, it turns out, had no expiration date. After putting off college for more than a decade to raise three kids, she graduated from Bowie State last year. Pollin paid her tuition. Smith reminded her that when they were kids, Alston always held some office in school government and claimed to want to be a politician when she grew up.
If Alston ran for the House of Delegates, Smith said, she’d be campaign manager.
Alston also consulted Tracy Proctor, who as director of the I Have a Dream Foundation’s D.C. office had been the chief liaison between the adopted kids and Pollin. Proctor, who still works with the group, was at Seat Pleasant Elementary on the day of Pollin’s 1988 visit. Through the years, he watched Alston and many of her classmates thrive in the program that Pollin had funded: Of the 59 members of the class adopted by Pollin, 49 graduated high school, 39 had some sort of postgraduate education, and 18 got at least one college degree.
Proctor told Alston he’d support any run for office, too. After talking to family members and meeting with civic groups in the 24th district, Alston made her decision. “I threw my hat in,” she says.
The Facebook page of Seat Pleasant Elementary alumni served as a clearinghouse for information about Alston’s run. In the primary, Alston was one of 10 candidates vying for the three slots on the general election ballot that would go to the Democratic Party.
On primary day, Proctor, who had provided hats and T-shirts for the campaign, worked a precinct with Alston’s mother. Smith and Alston worked together, too. After the polls closed, the gang, all of whose members were at Seat Pleasant Elementary on that day in 1988 when Pollin announced his class adoption, waited for results. And waited.
“It was 3 a.m. and we still didn’t know,” says Alston. “It was worse than waiting to find out if I passed the bar.”
By dawn, it had become pretty clear that Alston would end up among the winners. Her closest competitor for the third slot called to concede and congratulate her in the early morning. There is no Republican opposition on the general election ballot for the Democratic-leaning 24th district, so the win in the primary essentially guaranteed Alston a seat in the House of Delegates.
“Election day was a very special day for all of us,” says Proctor. “The moral of Tiffany’s story is: With the combination of determination and education, the sky’s the limit.”
Barring some crazy development, Alston will be sworn in as a member of the House of Delegates in January. She’s putting together a staff and brainstorming about potential projects for her first term. For now, those goals are mainly moral, not political.
“The learning curve begins,” Alston says. “But I want kids to know they can be anything they want to be, like I know. I want them to be able to dream like I could dream.”
She’s also trying to raise funds for a scholarship program for students in her district. She wants to name the program after Abe Pollin.
To add some symmetry to the tale: The 24th district includes the portion of Landover where Pollin’s Capital Centre once stood. And Seat Pleasant Elementary, where all those years ago Pollin made the pledge that changed Alston’s life, is in her bailiwick, too.
“I understand now why my mom was crying that day. I really do,” she says.
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