Professor Finds Fulfillment In Emptying His Pockets

Richard Semmler, center, offers muscle as well as funds in contributing to the Habitat for Humanity mission.
Richard Semmler, center, offers muscle as well as funds in contributing to the Habitat for Humanity mission. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 11, 2005

Numbers have always defined Richard Semmler.

A 59-year-old mathematician, he teaches calculus and algebra at Northern Virginia Community College.

He can explain how to find the derivative of a polynomial and why a{+-}{+m} always equals 1/(a{+m}).

But in his private life, Semmler has reduced his existence to the simplest equation.

In the last 35 years, by working part-time jobs and forgoing such everyday comforts as a home telephone and vacations, by living in an efficiency apartment and driving an old car, Semmler has donated as much as half of his annual income or more to charity.

His goal: $1 million before he retires.

"If I didn't do all of the things I was doing, I would probably have a new car every two years and I would have a huge house with a huge pool," Semmler said this week as he took a break from pounding nails on a Habitat for Humanity house in Vienna. He donated $100,000 to this house, most of the money required to build it.

He stared determinedly up at the half-finished house, his T-shirt streaked with sweat and sawdust.

"But I would not do it that way," he said. "I want to do it this way."

Percentage-wise, Semmler's generosity is exceedingly rare among the middle-class -- or the rich, for that matter, say those who study philanthropy. Each year, U.S. households give away an average of 2 percent of their income to nonprofit and religious organizations, according to Giving USA, which tracks donation trends.

A household with Semmler's annual income, $100,000, donates an average of $2,000 annually to charity. Last year, Semmler gave away $60,000.

One beneficiary of his largesse: his employer. Since joining NVCC in 1974, Semmler has given $355,000 to fund scholarships as well as the school's distance-learning program, where he often works.

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