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$500 tips given in brother's memory

10:33 PM, Jul 12, 2013   |    comments
Seth Collins, 33, of of Lexington, Ky., said he gave out the first $500 tip in July 2012, just days after his 30-year-old brother, Aaron, died, leaving a will that specified his video games should go to his nephew, that his computer should be given to a friend - and that his family should go eat a pizza and leave the waiter or waitress an "awesome" $500 tip.(Photo: aaroncollins.org via USA Today)
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By Mark Keierleber, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Beth Foster thought maybe she had done something wrong as she noticed the cameras and looked down at the $500 in front of her.

Then she started to cry. Could this tip be for real?

It was.

The bundle of $20 bills given earlier this month to Foster, a waitress at Thr3e Wise Men in Indianapolis, made her the 54th server in the country to benefit from an Eastern Kentucky man's request that after his death, a pizza server be given an "awesome" $500 tip.

"When something nice happens to someone, their instinct is to think that it's actually someone trying to be mean to them," said Seth Collins, of Lexington. "People just don't expect a random act of kindness."

Collins, 33, said he gave out the first tip last July, just days after his 30-year-old brother, Aaron, died, leaving a will that specified his video games should go to his nephew, that his computer should be given to a friend - and that his family should go eat a pizza and leave the waiter or waitress an "awesome" $500 tip.

Seth Collins videotaped his first big tip and put it on Facebook, where online friends urging him to keep going donated $1,000 to the cause by the next day. That grew to about $60,000, with donations from around the world.

As of this week, Collins had given out 56 tips in 19 states, for a total of $28,000.

By the end of October, he hopes to give out a tip in each of the 50 states - and he set out for the West by car earlier this week. Missouri and Illinois were among his first stops.

"It never gets old, and I know I would be happy to just continue doing it forever," said Collins, who was working as an information technology director when his brother died but has been laid off.

Seth's mother, Tina Collins, said her sons weren't particularly close while growing up in Pike County in Eastern Kentucky. While Seth was inclined to stay inside and read the encyclopedia, Aaron could be found outside on his bicycle, she said.

"They were so different, so they didn't really hang together a whole lot when they were younger," she said. "But here they are in Aaron's death, working together to make this great thing happen."

Seth Collins said that even as a child, his brother was obsessed with ensuring that people were properly tipped, and he would take notice when he thought their parents didn't tip well enough.

"He would grab a couple bucks out of his own pocket, it would have been his allowance money, but he would have tossed that on the table to help bolster the tip," Collins said.

He said that Aaron got the idea of leaving a big tip about five years ago at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Texas. A friend who was with Aaron told him that a new waitress who had messed up his drink order said she was contemplating quitting, claiming she wasn't cut out to be a server.

Aaron left her a $50 tip along with a note that said "don't give up," Collins said. "He saw the change that it had made in her."

Collins said he and his brother grew closer over time, and both went into information technology. Aaron was a computer technician in Lexington when he died.

He was hospitalized on July 3, 2012, and died four days later, Collins said. Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said in a phone interview that the death was ruled a suicide.

Collins said his brother's will was found on his computer, and it contained several requests. He didn't want people to buy flowers and he didn't want an elaborate funeral, asking instead that people celebrate his life with a beer.

And he wanted someone to get a big tip.

In fulfilling the tip request, Collins often takes family members and friends along - his mother and father, Gerney Collins, accompanied him to Indianapolis when he gave Foster her surprise tip.

During the pizza parlor visits, Seth Collins will whip out a video camera to capture the server's reaction as he hands over the stack of cash along with a note that explains why the tip is being given.

He said people often think it's a prank. Foster said she at first was worried Collins was investigating the restaurant.

Foster, a 2012 graduate of Marian University in Indianapolis who wants to become a teacher, said the tip meant she was able to pay her July rent, allowing her to stay in the house.

She said she paid the rent with all of the $20 bills except one.

"I took one of the 20s and I put it in a frame," Foster said. "It helps me remember that there are not only good people out there that did something so generous, but it also means through the roughest phase, the hardest times, there is going to be a light at the end of the tunnel."

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