While most of us cringe at the idea of being shouted at while stopped at an intersection, Seth Collins is getting used to it. With his signature fedora and increasingly recognizable face, Seth takes his newfound fame in stride as the fulfillment of his brother Aaron’s final wish brings kind words and heartfelt gratitude from individuals at home and across the country. The Collins family has given new meaning to the phrase “pay it forward” and turned the heartbreaking loss of a son and brother into an ongoing act of kindness, gratitude and respect.
Aaron Collins was a bright, energetic, good-natured man who had just turned 30 when his life ended abruptly on July 7. The loss of a loved one, particularly one so young, is a difficult enough burden to bear. But it was then that Aaron’s survivors made a choice to focus not on his death or their overwhelming grief but the unique and thoughtful nature of his life. Their choice would touch the lives of people in the Bluegrass State, across the nation and around the world.
In his 20s, Aaron wrote a simple will that included three requests: one regarding his parents, another offering financial help for someone homeless, and a final request that a huge tip—as in $500 for a pizza—be left for a waiter or waitress. No one in his family had been aware of the document, which was discovered on Aaron’s computer shortly after his death. That last wish really resonated with big brother Seth, and the following week he and members of the family visited Puccini’s Smiling Teeth pizzeria in Lexington to deliver the first $500 tip to server Sarah Ward. The event was filmed by the family, and Ward’s shock and gratitude at the generous gesture were evident. “It was a super busy morning, and I didn’t expect a good tip from really anyone,” said Ward, a three-year Puccini’s employee and college student studying environmental sciences. She gave hugs to Seth and his mother and shared half the money with her coworkers. “I went home that night thinking that would be the end of it,” Ward said. Not exactly.
The video clip of the tip giving went viral. The initial viewer hits were around 300 but grew exponentially as news agencies and bloggers picked up the story. “After it hit The Huffington Post, there was just no controlling it,” Seth told Chevy Chaser Magazine. Ward remembers feeling overwhelmed by the attention. “It went from a few thousand to 60,000 in basically three hours. I kind of freaked out.” But her anxiety was tempered by the fact that so much positive attention was being generated, and the public was recognizing the hard, often underappreciated work those in the service industry provide. “It’s great to have people respect how hard others work,” Ward said.
More than 1 million people have viewed the clip, and many have contributed financially to the effort. Tips given by the Collins family to other servers in the Lexington and Louisville areas were recorded and uploaded to the Web, and support from the public and attention from the media continued to grow. Seth and Ward were flown to New York to tape an episode of Inside Edition, and in August family members appeared on The Today Show to share their story. Intending to simply raise the money for a tip or two, Seth created a website, http://aaroncollins.org/, for donations and to explain his brother’s final wish. The family has received more than $65,000 in Aaron’s name. All proceeds are being used to provide $500 tips for servers on a weekly basis. “I plan to do this as long as I can,” Seth said.
Who was Aaron Collins? Loved by those closest to him, to be certain, but unknown to the rest of the world until his death established a tradition of compassionate giving all too often absent from our everyday lives. Aaron embodied the spirit of George Bailey, the selfless banker from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. A man of honor, kindness and caring, he put others first and, as his mother Tina Rae Collins stated, “never tooted his own horn.”
Collins described her son as “always busy and always a help to his younger sisters, friends, everyone.” Aaron worked with his brother-in-law Michael Johnson at Johnson’s Lexington computer repair shop, Computer Repairs Plus, and helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity. Arriving early and staying late were hallmarks of Aaron’s work and, according to his mom, he always strove to “achieve” when engaged in an activity. Tina Rae—who is the author of the Emily series, Woman: The Glory of Man, and several other faith-based books—often told Aaron he would be famous one day for something amazing. “I remember when I realized that he wasn’t going to wake up, I felt like I had lied to him.” But soon the discovery of his will and a subsequent series of events brought Aaron the fame and affection his mother had always known were part of her son’s future.
Older son Seth has been the driving force behind what she calls “an act of two brothers.” Attention from strangers on the street, at local businesses, and in airports both near and far has become commonplace. “I was stopped by three people at the airport in New York and several times here in Lexington,” Seth said. Television appearances, Internet stories, videos of the tip giving and the family’s website have carried Aaron’s wish to countries around the world, including Japan, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, Russia and Ukraine. In Texas, one man tipped a cab driver $500 in Aaron’s honor, and another gave a similar gratuity to a server for the same reason, even going so far as to sport a hat nearly identical to Seth’s. “Aaron’s best friend is a waitress,” Seth said, “and they both said they would love to give a server a huge tip.”
Seth related how Aaron truly started the ball rolling himself in a gesture of kindness and goodwill toward a novice server. “I remember when he gave a $50 tip to a waitress who was new and not doing a very good job. She said something about quitting, and he told her not to give up, but to keep trying.” Seth said this sense of compassion and understanding was always a part of his brother’s life, and he will be a part of spreading that compassion to others for as long as possible.
Tina Rae has begun a book about her younger son’s life, Aaron Collins Did That, which will include a chapter in Aaron’s own words. The rest will bring the quiet, caring energy of Aaron’s life to light, showcasing all that he shared with those around him. Deeply connected to her Christian faith, Collins noted that Aaron’s final gesture of giving reflects a universal belief in caring and sharing. For his congregation, Rabbi Neal Gold of Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, Mass., wove Aaron’s story into a message of compassion, selflessness and continuing to pay forward the Kentucky man’s simple act of kindness.
Perhaps Tina Rae summed up the bright, engaging spirit of her son best when she described the way in which he lived: “He was always building something, fixing something or helping someone. He never sought attention for himself; he just was. Aaron was.”