March 4, 2010— -- This recession has no lack of villains. There are predatory lenders, super scammers like Bernard Madoff, and propped-up CEOs who insist on their multimillion-dollar bonuses while Americans lose their homes and watch their savings plunge.
But there is also a group of Americans who have done extraordinarily generous things, even as the economy around them crumbles.
Call them recession angels, people who have taken their own money and given it to employees and their communities just as everybody else has been cutting back.
Take Grace Groner, who passed away in January at the age of 100. For much of her adult life she lived modestly in a one bedroom home in Lake Forest, Illinois, an affluent Chicago, suburb.
Groner's single indulgence was a scholarship program she created for Lake Forest College,, her alma mater. Years ago, she donated $180,000 for a scholarship program that enables some of the college's 1,300 students to pursue internships and study-abroad programs.
But even college administrators were stunned to find out that upon her death Groner bequeathed her entire estate to the college. The total amount: $7 million.
Stephen Schutt, Lake Forest's president, told the Chicago Tribune that he knew of Groner's plan for her estate for more than a year, but that he had no idea how large the gift would be until after her death.
Equally amazing in an era of gyrating financial markets is how Groner amassed her wealth. It stemmed from a $180 stock purchase she made some seven decades ago, her attorney and long-time friend told the Tribune.
William Marlatt says that in 1935, Groner bought three $60 shares of specially issued Abbott Laboratories stock and never sold them. Groner work as a secretary at Abbott for 43 years. The shares split a number of times over the next seventy years and Groner reinvested the dividends, says Marlatt, who says long before Groner passed away, her initial stock purchase had become a fortune.
"She did not have the (material) needs that other people have," Marlatt told the Tribune. "She could have lived in any house in Lake Forest but she chose not to."
And about that modest, white shingle house that Groner lived quietly in for years? She left that to the college, as well. It will be turned into "Grace's Cottage," a living quarters for women who receive foundation scholarships.
Then there's Danny Cottrell, the owner of a pharmacy in a tiny town in southern Alabama.
He decided recently that the town of Brewton needed its own stimulus and that his 24 employees deserved a little something extra. So he doled out $16,000 in cash bonuses. Every full-time worker got $700 and every part-time employee got $300.
Cottrell asked only that his workers donate 15 percent to a charity or somebody who was in worse shape than they were, and then take the rest and spend it at local businesses. To track the local impact of his "stimulus," Cottrell handed out the bonuses in $2 bills.
"I handed them their $2 bills and turned them loose," he told ABC News. "They've done a good job. I've been very pleased. They bought into it. It's really been a lot of fun. It's sort of taken on a life of its own."
The money has been spent on clothing, livestock feed, auto parts and at restaurants and bakeries in the town of roughly 5,500 people.
"A lot of them were businesses that they had never been to before," Cottrell said. "They're like everybody else. They're immediately attracted to the big-box stores."
Lonna Jackson has worked for seven years as a cashier at Cottrell's pharmacy.
When Cottrell gathered his employees for an announcement, she and some of her co-workers feared the worst: layoffs. Then he announced the bonuses.
"We sat there, mouths opened. Some cried. We were all just in shock," Jackson said.
With her $700, Jackson donated money to a neighbor in need and then bought fabric for her sewing group which makes baby blankets for neonatal units at area hospitals. She plans on spending the rest of the money on car tires.
The money was a big help for Jackson who has been trimming her spending, fearing a layoff or some other recession-related challenge.
"You cut back on everything because you just don't know," she said.
When she got the cash, Jackson thought carefully about where to spend it.
"When you have it in your hand, it makes you think of the smaller stores and businesses that are struggling right now," she said.
And as cashier at the pharmacy, she has seen plenty of those $2 bills circle back to Cottrell's business.
"I just hope there are more people out there like him," she said.
Doctor Gives Free Health Care
Cottrell isn't alone in thinking that small acts of kindness can make a big difference in peoples' lives.
In the Minneapolis suburbs, a six-physician gynecological practice has started giving free preventive care to any of its existing patients who lost their medical insurance because of layoffs.
"It's not going to kill us to do a little extra work," Dr. K. Anthony Shibley said. "They probably already have enough bill collectors calling them."
The patients can get one free preventive-care visit and a free Pap smear. If they also want tests for sexually transmitted diseases or cholesterol screening, the doctors are offering those services at a reduced rate. The plan resulted from the worries of a few longtime patients who no longer had insurance.
"We have a doctor-patient relationship," Shibley said. "It's not exactly a business-client relationship."
Perhaps the best-known recession angel is Leonard Abess Jr., who was recently singled out by President Obama for his generosity.
After selling his Miami bank in the fall, Abess quietly handed out $60 million in bonuses from his own pocket. The money didn't just go to bank executives but also to tellers, secretaries, clerks and former workers.
Using a formula to weigh years of service and salary, he divvied up the money among the bank's 399 current employees and 72 former ones. Checks ranged from tens of thousands of dollars to more than $100,000.
"My father was a banker," Abess recently told ABC News. "I grew up at the dinner table with tales of the depression and tales of what a banker meant to a community, about responsibility, handling other people's money. And that these are your neighbors, the people you live with, you see all the time and you have to protect their money."
Linda Naughton, who has worked at City National for 50 years, said, "There's no better place to work."
She started as a file clerk, rising to the position of managing senior vice president. "It's the only job I've ever had."
Abess, who remains as chairman and CEO of the bank, said its success is all about the workers, which is not a line you hear too often in corporate America today.
"When I sold the bank, I didn't want the money so I gave $60 million of it to my employees. And I feel really good about it," Abess said.
Indiana Food Drive
For the past three weeks, Scott Tuttle, president of Livin' Lite Recreational Vehicles, has been organizing a giant food distribution program with Feed The Children. He expects to give food and care packages to 6,000 people spread out over eight towns in northern Indiana.
"I do have a business to run, but you know what? Something like this is more important to me than just keeping my head down and taking care of myself," Tuttle said.
After coordinating with area churches, truck drivers and the food donors, he then got his hands dirty packing up boxes with other volunteers.
How much time has he put into the effort?
"I don't know. I haven't kept track of it," he said. "It's been a significant amount of time, but it's worth it."
Tuttle is very modest about this effort, which will feed unemployed families in this hard-hit area.
"I'm just typical of the kind of people around here," he said. "There just a lot of good people in this area and when other people are hurting, they're willing to go out of their way to help get them back on their feet and get through things."
Timothy Tucker used to work at high-end restaurants in Seattle and Dallas, catering to well-to-do Americans.
Today he couldn't be further from the well-heeled. Tucker is helping the homeless and those living below the poverty line in Louisville, Ky., learn to cook healthy meals using fresh ingredients. Tucker hopes that once they learn various culinary skills, they can land jobs at local restaurants.
"We've never seen anything like this before," he said of the current economic climate.
His classes, taught through the Salvation Army, also feed 400 people a day at a homeless shelter.
Tucker said that his program is "much more magical and special" than his prior jobs.
"Here we are able to cook great food and use it to heal people's lives," he said. "It's a much bigger thing in life that cooking incredibly beautiful food for people who have a lot of money to pay for it."
Student Skipping Spring Break to Build House
Spring break is typically a time to go to the beach, relax, party or on a more moderate budget stay home and relax on the couch with a good movie or two. But Haydar Ali, a junior at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, decided this year to spend his spring break helping an unemployed man in Detroit.
Ali led a team of college students for the United Way make upgrades at the man's house.
"In these times of economic decline, more than ever we need to step up as humans and help out," Ali said.
So no beer, beach or boardwalks for Ali. Just some lumber, nails and a lesson about the economy.
"Nobody is really immune to the recession and that's why we need to all get together and help out. That way, nobody goes down without a fight," he said. "We're all interrelated in this world."
Other recessionary saints are giving away money to get attention.
Take the Web site BailoutBooth.com
The company's founder is on a national tour giving away money in high-traffic areas such as New York's Times Square and Washington's Union Station. He recently gave away $50,000 in cash -- ranging from $50 to $5,000 -- to anybody who walked up and explained why they need a bailout.
His message: Times are tough, and the government is taking its time to get money to the hands of individuals.
Oh, yeah, and there is a less idealistic reason. The Web site is trying to promote its new video classified service. Maybe not angelical, but at least creative.