News

The philanthropist pauper

Local homeless man creates college scholarship as his legacy

Ever since Hope's Corner opened in downtown Mountain View six years ago, serving free weekly meals for the needy, one of their regular guests was a homeless man by the name of Edward Hamm.

He was a mysterious figure. His routine at the soup kitchen was always the same: He'd come in wearing a hoodie sweatshirt tightly drawn over his head, accept whatever food was on the day's menu and isolate himself in the corner. He would eat alone in silent concentration, sometimes while looking through a Stanford University Continuing Studies catalog.

Some days, he was like a monk who had taken a vow of silence, never speaking a word to anyone. On other days, he'd appear to be having a conversation with invisible people seated at his table. If one of the charity's helpers tried to talk to him, he would brusquely avoid contact.

"He had this social aversion, he'd become very anxious around other people," said Dr. Marilyn Winkleby, a retired Stanford Medicine professor and Hope's Corner board member. "He would watch you for six months or a year before he would even say hello to you."

Hamm had reportedly been homeless in Mountain View for about 35 years, living for much of that time in an encampment along Stevens Creek. He died earlier this year from a pulmonary embolism, just as Winkleby and others began learning his life story.

There was clearly more to the man than one might assume. Despite living a spartan lifestyle, on his deathbed Hamm gave everything he owned to set up a scholarship fund for at-risk students. He left enough money to help send students to college for years to come.

"He was this person with a whole different dimension and story than you'd expect," Winkleby said.

Hamm suffered from an unidentified mental illness which left him agitated when indoors and around other people. Occasionally, he had psychotic breaks, leaving him erratic and shouting obscenities at the top of his lungs. He struggled to organize his life and keep appointments.

"Edward was someone who had slipped through the cracks because of his mental illness," said Leslie Carmichael, board president of Hope's Corner. "People like him who have these conditions, they can't really access basic services on their own."

After about a year of attending the Hope's Corner meals, Hamm began to slowly lower his guard. He would break his silence occasionally to say hello or goodbye to the kitchen helpers, Carmichael recalled.

Winkleby said she made a concerted effort to get the reclusive man to open up. Occasionally, she would ask if she could sit with him. In one of the rare times that he spoke, Hamm asked her why they didn't serve Coca-Cola. Winkleby offered to bring him a soda if he would just tell her his name.

As Hamm began to trust Winkleby, details of his life began to trickle out. He told her that he grew up in South Carolina, and later moved to New York's Harlem. For a period, he trained as a competitive boxer.

He said he received a master's degree from the University of California at Berkeley and trained there as a baritone singer, performing in the school's production of "Oklahoma!" He said he joined the U.S. Air Force and served overseas in data entry at a Royal Air Force Station near London. After he was discharged, he wound up in the East Bay city of Richmond doing data entry work and his mental troubles reportedly began emerging.

Confirming the facts of Hamm's story is difficult, given how much time that has passed. UC Berkeley officials contacted by the Voice could not immediately confirm Hamm's enrollment.

But Winkleby was able to verify his Air Force service. As they began to talk more, she asked him if he was receiving his military pension. He was not, she said.

Over the course of the next few months, Winkleby made it her mission to help him receive his government pension. It was a harder job than she first realized.

Living on the streets, Hamm had lost his photo ID, Social Security card and all documentation proving who he was. Local officials with the Veteran's Administration couldn't provide his pension without this identification. Trying to restore his identity became like an episode straight out of a Kafka novel.

"I talked with six people about how to get him a photo ID, and they said you need a photo ID," Winkleby said. "Even with my knowledge of the system and my position at Stanford, it was still difficult."

It took nearly two years. Winkleby said their first lucky break was getting a copy of Hamm's military discharge papers. From there, they were able to get copies of his birth certificate and identification, which opened the door for him to begin receiving his pension and food stamps. He later opened his own bank account.

For the first time in decades, Hamm had a reliable income stream, but he still lived like a pauper. He used some money to buy more food and second-hand clothes, but he was naturally a thrifty person.

"My mother always said to save my money and not use all of it," he told Winkleby.

Following a stroke late last year, Hamm's health began deteriorating. He was hospitalized at El Camino Hospital and later transferred to hospice care in Pacifica. In his final days, Hamm had expressed interest in putting the money he had accrued toward something that could survive him. He liked the idea of a scholarship for disadvantaged youth.

Last week, an Alta Vista High School graduate received the first-ever Edward Hamm Scholarship. Zitlaly Ramirez said she plans to use the $1,000 scholarship to enroll in a medical-assistant program through the Mountain View-Los Altos Adult School.

"I feel honored. This was a man who didn't have much and he wanted to help someone further their education," she said. "It's what I want to also do someday in the future."

Comments

49 people like this
Posted by Leslie M
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jun 13, 2017 at 2:36 pm

What an example to us all, and especially those that Silicon Valley has made wealthy. Not a lot of money can make a big difference in the lives of others.


25 people like this
Posted by hsnpoor
a resident of another community
on Jun 13, 2017 at 3:39 pm

@Leslie M
Yes, it is a wonderful example to others! The whole article is really a beautiful reality check for us all and the lens through which we view others. I give great kudos to Dr. Winkleby for her kindness, compassion and especially her perseverance, without which the scholarships may not have been possible. I've worked with helping to feed the homeless through local church ministries and got quite an education. We tend to think all people want what we want, not the least of which is a roof over our heads. I quickly found that this is not necessarily true. There are many among us who absolutely detest the very thought of living within walls and under a roof. We need to find a way to respect and work with that reality.


18 people like this
Posted by fcservices
a resident of another community
on Jun 13, 2017 at 4:39 pm

Thank you for sharing this story. At Family & Children Services of Silicon Valley, we serve people every day who are in recovery for mental health and/or addiction. It warms the heart to read about the respect and care that Mr. Hamm found at Hope's Corner. That Mr. Hamm chose to use his funds to create opportunities for local young people, well, that's powerful.


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