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The first time Lance Hamilton tried to stand on principle, he was so small he ended up sort of wobbling around on principle instead. But then, taking a stand against social injustice isn't easy when you're two. It was 1966, and the city of New York had chosen Christmas Eve to press eviction proceedings against the interracial Interfaith Hospital in Queens. A bank had foreclosed on the hospital's mortgage, and 80 bedridden patients were about to be put out in the street. Negotiations with the bank had broken off, and the police had been summoned when Lance and his oldest brother, Harry, appeared at the hospital, walking hand in hand with their father. "I stood Lance and Harry in front of the hospital's main doorway," Stan Hamilton recalls. "I had resigned myself to die that day. When the authorities came, I told them, 'Whoever comes through here has to go through my two sons. And whoever does that has to kill me.' " The police captain in command thought it over and then told Stan he believed he was serious. The hospital was given an extension to come up with the money.
Almost 19 years later, Lance is standing his ground at Penn State, where he is a two-year starter at cornerback for the top-ranked Nittany Lions, who will go for the national championship against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1. In a college football season rife with even more venality than usual, Lance is a paragon of both scholarship and virtue. Even his name sounds a little too good to be true, but Lance it is. A senior prelaw major with a 3.83 grade-point average, Lance is now taking symbolic logic, Greek and Roman mythology, and ceramic science and engineering. He is also working on a yearlong independent study project on his father's activities during the civil rights movement of the '60s.
"You have to remember what you're at school to do," says Lance. "You have to have priorities and discipline so you don't waste your education." He doesn't drink or smoke, and he rarely dates or goes to movies or parties. "Being around football is my social life," he says.
Lance and Harry, who was a member of Penn State's 1982 national championship team and now is a safety for the New York Jets, aren't the only Hamiltons to have impressed Nittany Lion coach Joe Paterno. "In my 35 years in this business, I've never met a more remarkable family," says Paterno. "Or a more amazing man than Stan Hamilton. Stan has more strength, more energy and more courage in the clutch than anyone I've ever known. Sometimes you wonder when you get a kid if he can measure up to your standards. With the Hamiltons, I worry whether I can measure up to their standards." Another Hamilton, Darren, is a senior backup receiver for Penn State.
This is a family that once sold its pet dog—you know, man's best friend—to buy canned goods for the poor people in Mississippi. The Hamiltons have been fighting poverty and racism for 20 years, and they don't believe much has really changed. "I don't know if you could call me an angry young man," Lance says, "but I'm definitely annoyed."
The Hamiltons' charity began at home, with Stan's father. Harry Hamilton the elder could speak seven languages—among them Chinese and Hebrew—but his principles often clashed with the views of his employers. So he had difficulty holding a job, a fact that kept his family in reduced circumstances. "I give a damn because my father gave a damn," Stan says. "When I woke up in the mornings, I didn't know who I was going to stumble over in our living room. My dad took strays in off the street when we had only four rooms for the 10 people in our family. My life ever since has been consumed by that. And now I've consumed my sons' lives."
Because the streets in Stan's Queens neighborhood flooded when it rained, he once set his small sons adrift in a raft to demonstrate for photographers how deep the water was. And when poor people marched on Washington in 1968, Stan took Lance and Harry there so that the three of them could build a tent together in the muddy bog of Resurrection City. Lance started working in his father's soup kitchen while he was still in high school, and was counseling alcohol and drug abusers before he was himself a teenager. "That got a little touchy," Lance says, "because I was going to school with some of them."
When Stan moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. in 1972, he saw people who were out of work and hungry. Eventually he scraped together enough funding from local churches to start a mission to the poor called Shepherd of the Street. "The people in Wilkes-Barre called me a New York sensationalist when I first tried to get the churches here to feed people," Stan says. "They said there weren't any hungry people in Wilkes-Barre, and yet they feed 200 people a day now in the soup kitchen. I wanted to build a shelter for the homeless here, but my community didn't want it. They didn't want derelicts in their neighborhoods."
As he talks, Stan is distractedly opening the day's mail in the kitchen at his present ministry, Hands of Hope, which also happens to be his home. The mail includes a single small donation and a notice from his bank that he is being charged $15 because his account is overdrawn by $3.85. "They charge you more of what they know you ain't got in the first place," says Duke Burnett, a local prison guard and Hands of Hope volunteer. "That's the American system." Stan, who wears no pockets in his self-made pants as a kind of philosophical fashion statement, just smiles.
"To a lot of people in this country, poverty ends at five o'clock," Stan says. "You're not supposed to be poor after five o'clock, and definitely not on weekends. I take care of the people who fall through the cracks in the system, the ones the so-called safety net misses. You hear so many people look at derelicts in the street and say, 'He's lazy. He's a liar. Why doesn't he get a job?' Well, I want the liar, I want the cheat, the cutthroat, and the scoundrel."