12/08/2014 05:30 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

Who Are the Righteous?

And the Lord said, "If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes." (Genesis 18:26)

In every generation since, Jewish tradition holds, there are 36 special people so good as to justify the salvation of mankind.

Who are they? Where are they? What makes them so special?

I have spent half my life trying to answer these questions. The search has taken me far and wide, across this country and beyond. People by the tens of thousands, men and women of distinction, have provided input.

Following their leads, I have met many people who might qualify to be among The Righteous, but only one I confident enough to identify. Her name is Leila Macauley. She lives in south Florida and will be 93 on Dec. 24, 2014.

I met Leila 25 years ago when I went to Connecticut to interview her husband, Bob. In the preceding six years, Bob had turned AmeriCares into the largest private relief organization in the world.

Bob's story was the stuff of legends. He had mortgaged his home to save 200 children he had never met, created a company run on Christian principles, sent mercy flights into Soviet territory before he had permits to land, dispatched a helicopter into a war zone to rescue a single child, and developed a reputation for being the first to respond to any disaster anywhere in the world.

But when Bob learned the nature of my interest, he told me I was talking to the wrong person. He said I should be talking with his wife instead.

"I was very much a bum before I got married," he said. "I kept all the whisky companies going. I didn't live a very saintly life. I didn't do too much good. She made me who I am today. She has been my moral compass."

At the time, I dismissed his comment as the kind of thing any man might say about his wife, differing only in degree. Then I met Leila.

I soon learned that she cast the deciding vote on whether the family should buy a new car or help fund an orphanage. She was the one who greeted the press on the lawn the day Bob mortgaged the house and answered their questions by saying, "It seems like a good deal to me. The bank gets the house and Bob gets the kids." It was her values Bob built his company around.

Since 1970, Leila has quietly and competently run The Friends of Children (, a charity supporting children's health, education, and welfare. It is the only charity I know that gives away everything it takes in, running on an overhead of less than 1 percent.

"With AmeriCares, I saw how effective the right medical supplies, clean food and water could be in a disaster," she explains. "But the need didn't end when the disaster ended. I wanted to be involved in supporting children whose futures were in doubt."

Leila seeks no compensation for anything she does and has never sought public attention. Concealment is one of the attributes of The Righteous. That's why you will never see a politician among their number.

The Righteous remind us the world is changed from the bottom up more often than from the top down. They teach us love is always an appropriate response. They transform every life they meet and improve every situation they find. Like Leila Macauley, they make the world a better place simply by being who they are.