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Lee Benson, deseret news
Longtime American Indian Services Director Dale T. Tingey, left, visits with Gary Tom of the Kaibab Paiute tribe.

LEHI — There are two things Dale Tingey isn't much interested in: publicity and retirement.

So American Indian Services, the nonprofit Native American-aid organization Tingey has led for most of the last half century, had something of a delicate situation on its hands at its annual celebrity fundraising auction at Thanksgiving Point last Friday night.

How to, uh, mention, that Tingey, who turned 88 last month, isn't going to be the top man anymore — the new executive director is Jay Brasher — without throwing the spotlight squarely on Tingey, and, worse yet, make it look like he's headed to a rocking chair?

In the end, as several hundred people showed up to attend the gala affair, the AIS staff elected on a low-key strategy that could be summed up as "Oh, By the Way."

Word that Brasher is replacing Tingey as the new chief was briefly announced just before "please enjoy your dinner."

Sitting at a banquet table in the front of the room, unobtrusive as ever in a gray suit, Tingey never said a word. He didn't get up and take a bow. He got as much attention as the waiters filling the water glasses.

And so life goes on with a remarkable charity that has grown and grown and grown over the years while staying under the radar of widespread attention and public acclaim.

Much like the man running it.

"What he's doing, what he's done, is amazing," says Tara Hart Amavi, a member of AIS' national advisory council who has observed Tingey in action since she came on board in 1996. "And what's interesting is most people don't even know this is happening. It's a parallel universe. A parallel universe doesn't have to be something out there in a different magnetic frequency. It can be things that are happening right alongside us that the world doesn't really know about."

In his own understated, tireless way, Tingey has built an organization that each year raises millions of dollars and uses it to shower thousands of college scholarships on deserving Native American young people, empowering them to become the leaders of the next generation.

Last year AIS gave out more than 2,500 scholarships. This year the goal is 4,000 — enough to fill an entire freshman class.

Tingey was on his way to doing something else when he first became acquainted with America's native people. He was a religious educator with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seminaries and institutes when he was called as president of the Southwest Indian Mission in 1968. In that capacity he got to know Native Americans in parts of five states: Utah, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

When Tingey returned from his mission in 1971, he was persuaded to leave regular academia and take over as director of the Institute of American Indian Studies and Research at Brigham Young University, a program that was started in 1958.

In 1989, at precisely the age when Tingey was set to retire from BYU, the school was also ready to retire its Indian Institute.

That's when Tingey stepped in as volunteer director, shortened the name, and turned American Indian Services into an independent nonprofit charity.

Coincidental timing? Tingey would tell you he thinks not.

In the 23 years since, Tingey and AIS have weathered all the storms nonprofits face, many of them in the private planes Tingey, a World War II pilot, has flown to all corners of the Indian world.

Virtually every year, the amount of funds raised by AIS, and scholarships given, have risen. Along the way, all sorts of celebrities have jumped to the cause and leaders of the LDS Church have been tireless in their unofficial but unequivocal support.

Tingey pushes one and all out front, but stays backstage himself.

In his new calling, as director emeritus, he doesn't see himself being any more visible, or putting in any less hours.

"I want to support the new leadership team to ensure a seamless transition," he said at the end of Friday night's fundraiser. "And I want to spend more time with the Indian people. I'm looking forward to that.

"I just want to perpetuate what we've got going," he said. "I once asked (LDS Church) President Kimball how long I should stay with AIS. He said I should stay with it till I die … and I will."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: benson@desnews.com