Oakland attorney Harvey Stein was about to have a very strange day. His first clue was the unlikely assemblage of visitors packed into his office. One was Jerald Luzar, commissioner of the Oakland Athletic League. Another was Lynn Dodd, principal of McClymonds High School in West Oakland. The last was a nattily dressed middle-aged man who introduced himself as Cornelius Grant -- Motown legend, former Temptations musical director, coauthor of hit songs like "(I Know) I'm Losing You," and now, philanthropist.
Grant explained on that late afternoon in December that he wanted to establish two separate charitable funds for the school and the athletic league, into each of which he would deposit $1.5 to $2 million over a period of five years. But the papers authorizing the deal had to be drawn up in a hurry, Stein recalls, because the private jet Grant had parked at the Oakland Airport was supposed to whisk him off to Chicago the next morning.
Dodd and Luzar, both heads of organizations to which glamorous out-of-town celebrities do not make spontaneous, extravagant donations, seemed somewhat dazed, Luzar remembers. Perhaps they were still shaken by the whirlwind way in which Cornelius Grant had blown into their lives.
Grant had visited Luzar at the athletic league's headquarters earlier that morning, boldly demanding the commissioner convince him that the organization needed his funding. He said the last Temptations album had done so well that he needed to give away $9 million for tax reasons, Luzar recalls. At Grant's suggestion, the two adjourned to a Mexican restaurant near City Center. After Luzar explained the league's financing, and the two reminisced about Oakland athletes, Grant began making phone calls that he said were to his accountants, telling them to cut an initial $250,000 check. The money would be delivered that day to the league, which serves Oakland's six high schools, Luzar recounts. Then Grant said he'd like to be taken to McClymonds to see the facilities and meet some of the teachers.
Once they reached the school and met with Dodd, Grant turned on the charisma. He talked about his memories of McClymonds, fondly mentioning a music teacher the school had employed 25 years ago, then asking if he could visit with a group of music students, Luzar remembers. After Grant entered the classroom, he launched into an impromptu speech about writing hit songs and playing keyboards onstage with the Temptations. He signed autographs and urged the students to work hard, telling them they could find success in life, no matter what their backgrounds.
So pleased was Grant with his reception at McClymonds that he announced he would set up a charitable fund for the school. He soon got back on the phone with his accountants. Hanging up, he invited Dodd and Luzar to accompany him to Stein's City Center office, where they would draw up the paperwork.
As he conferred with Stein, Grant explained why he was in the Bay Area. He and his daughter were relocating from New York, he said, and he was having a 15,000-square-foot house built in the Ruby Hills development in Pleasanton. He told Stein, whom he'd just met that day, that his people had thoroughly checked Stein out and offered to make an initial deposit into his trust account to cover his fees for the next year. The group got to work, discussing the limitations Young wanted to attach to the money and how it would be transferred from one bank to another.
"It seemed that things were going fast," says Luzar, who points out the league had never before been offered a $250,000 one-time donation. "I'm kind of looking at Harvey thinking, 'Is this going to happen?' " The same doubt kept surfacing in Stein's mind when he later accompanied Grant on a wild celebrity-style night out that included a trip backstage at Yoshi's jazz club and a tour of the private $30 million plane that Grant claimed was his. By the end of the evening, Stein would have shelled out about $600 to pay for Grant's meals, drinks, and hotel bills. By the next morning, Stein realized that he, the league, and McClymonds High had been conned. The scholarship money would never materialize.
And the mysterious philanthropist from out of town? Although the real Cornelius Grant is alive and well, he was hundreds of miles away in Los Angeles, where he runs a talent-booking agency. And he never did attend McClymonds High School. The man who had so expertly sweet-talked the Yoshi's staff and the high school music department turned out to be a former West Oakland sanitation worker named Alan Young, who has made a stunning second career out of answering to names more famous than his own.
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