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From Cotton Fields to Holmby Hills : Sharecropper's Daughter to Be Honored at City Hall Reception

November 06, 1986|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

I've been poor, poor, poor--with the tubs catching water (from the roof) on the stove. So I know both sides. So I want to seriously repeat to you, it's better to live like I'm living now . . . . I deal with a man called Jesus and I know he owns it all. I'm not afraid to go anywhere except for where the Ku Klux Klan people are." --Philanthropist Eula McClaney

As rags-to-riches stories go, it's hard to find one with richer highs or raggier lows than 72-year-old Eula McClaney's.

This small black woman has only a sixth-grade education. She grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama in an old sharecropper's shack, the kind that lets "you see the sun shining through the roof."

McClaney's back door neighbor is now entertainer Neil Diamond. Just around the corner is Hugh Hefner's place. And her own Holmby Hills estate includes a 22-room, French provincial mansion--complete with gates, servants, a big driveway, the works.

Not that any of this is a true indication of her wealth. Apparently, she could easily trade up. Having made her fortune in real estate, she can certainly shuffle and deal properties with the best of them.

Millions to Charity

Instead, she has decided to donate much of her money to charity. In fact on Friday, McClaney and her daughter, La-Doris McClaney, will be honored at City Hall for what one official described as "a multimillion-dollar gift" the two recently made to 11 charities.

(La-Doris, a high-spirited woman who has managed McClaney's estate for the last 20 years, 19 of them with her late sister, describes her business relationship with her mother in basic terms: "She built the empire, retired and dropped it on us.")

The family's most recent charitable contribution was a fairly simple decision. As McClaney explained, a few days ago at her home, "I promised God that if he helped and blessed me, I would bless someone else."

Though the lavish nature of those blessings was obvious in the rooms filled with ornate antiques, it's not been the best of times lately for McClaney. Her elder daughter, Burnie McClaney, died a year ago last August; according to La-Doris, McClaney's only other child, Burnie was diagnosed as having lung cancer and died rather suddenly three days later. (The 11-charity gift was made in Burnie's name and one of the recipients is the American Lung Assn.)

McClaney's health similarly has not been good in recent months. She's been hospitalized for hypertension several times in the last year, and had only been home from the hospital for three weeks when she was interviewed.

"I don't know why I should have waited to get it until now," she declared, her voice strong, but somewhat hoarse. "Seems like I should have gotten it way before."

But McClaney loves sharing her life story, and felt well enough to do so. (One of her few regrets is that thus far, she's been unable to get her autobiography, "God, I Listened," published.)

As she took a break to pose for pictures, however, it became apparent just how seriously her hypertension affects her. La-Doris, dressed in fine ivory silk and matching wool gabardine, adjusted her mother's more matronly attire, smoothed her hair and applied lipstick to her mother's otherwise makeup-free face.

After a few photographs indoors, there were more outside. But the short walk so exhausted McClaney that she could barely talk. Observing this, Lil Neville, the family's public relations woman of 14 years, suggested McClaney use a wheelchair when she and La-Doris are honored by Mayor Tom Bradley and others at City Hall.

How do you get from the cotton fields of Orion, Ala., to being celebrated by a big city mayor?

Once she caught her breath, McClaney summed it up in two words: "prayer" and "sacrifice."

The worst part of her life wasn't living in a shack or working the cotton fields at age 7, she insisted. Or even having to stop her formal education at the sixth grade because that's all the schooling there was available. (She repeated the sixth grade, however, because she didn't want to leave school. And though she never went back to school, there's now a Los Angeles elementary school named for her, the Eula McClaney Christian School.)

'Happy Children'

"We grew up as happy children because everyone around us was poor," McClaney recalled, adding that she was the third of five offspring.

At 19, she married up. As she characterized Burnish McClaney, "He was handsome and he was from a more affluent family than I was. The truth is, I was reaching for a little bit higher spot than where I was."

But her husband didn't have the business drive that his father did, McClaney remembered, and by the time her two daughters were born, they were still living in relative poverty on land rented from her father-in-law.

"I soon realized I didn't want this kind of life for my children," she continued. "I talked to my husband about leaving the South. I wanted to go anywhere above the Mason-Dixon line."

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