by Andrew Shurtleff
Legrand reaches for the stars
By Charlotte Crystal
Legrand rarely saw the stars from the windows of his familys
crowded apartment in Brooklyns Brighton Beach. It was a
rough-and-tumble neighborhood where life was fast and money was
Roman brought little with her from Puerto Rico and couldnt
give her children much, but she loved them and insisted they work
hard in school.
knew from an early age that if I ever wanted to get out of Brooklyn,
I had to do well in school, Legrand said.
he did. Legrands dedication to his education will pay off
as he graduates from the University with a bachelors degree
in aeronautical engineering
and a minor in philosophy.
He hopes to pursue a career as an astronaut.
hasnt been easy. As children, Legrand and his sisters passed
drug deals and prostitutes in the alleys on their way to and from
school. Peer pressure was strong. Gang fights were common. And
at 5-foot-3, Legrand often had to stand up for himself.
shorter than most kids makes you tougher, he said.
his mothers words made an impression on him and he consistently
earned As and Bs in school.
settled into a routine, until one day his mother and her boyfriend,
Antonio Perez, took Legrand to a favorite pancake house and told
him they both were dying of AIDS.
first, I laughed. I thought they were joking, Legrand said.
But they werent. They said, We need you to do
things no child should be expected to do. We need you not to be
10, but to be 50.
was clean when he met Marisol Roman, but he had used
intravenous drugs for years. He had contracted HIV through shared
needles and, unknowingly, passed it to Legrands mother.
was mad, Legrand said. I started acting up.
two months, he went out looking for trouble. And he found it.
day, I was beating up a kid when I looked into his eyes and I
saw him saying to me, Please stop. Youre going to
kill me. And I stopped. I knew there was no need for what
I was doing. I went home and I cried for hours. Then I told my
parents I was ready.
the next four years, Legrand cared for his mother and the man
she loved. Legrand bought the groceries, cooked the meals, did
the laundry, paid the bills, tended the house and watched over
his two younger sisters.
was always food in the house, he said. There were
always clean clothes. I learned how to save money and take care
But its hard for a child to see people he
loves waste away.
died in 1992. Legrands mother died a year later.
her death, Legrands maternal uncle, Jesus Roman, and Jesus
wife, Susie, took in the three children, moving them from Brooklyn
to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, where Roman
was posted as a sergeant. The adjustment was difficult, but everyone
tried to make it work.
was hard to take in three kids who were total strangers,
Legrand said. But they always tried to provide a loving,
caring family and treated us very well, Legrand said. I
feel like I can never pay them back for what they did for us.
two years in Anchorage, the family moved to Langley Air Force
Base in Hampton, Va., where his uncle worked with the Air Combat
Command and Legrand finished high school. He earned a seat in
U.Va.s School of Engineering and Applied Science and scholarships
to pay for four years of college.
success is remarkable given the complexities of his childhood,
said Mary Beck, U.Va.s director of applied math instruction,
who taught Legrand and later hired him to help on her Afton farm.
Its virtually a miracle that he emerged from such
a life with a worldview that favors goodness, compassion and love.
has had few chances, but he has made the most of them.
my parents dying and my leaving Brooklyn, Id never have
had the opportunity to be a college graduate, Legrand said.
Like the rapper, DMX, says, To live is to suffer.
To survive is to find meaning in that suffering.
when you find meaning, you find happiness, he said.
seems to have found both, although security still is elusive.
The Boeing Co.s commercial airline unit extended him a job
offer last summer, after an internship, then rescinded it last
fall. At the same time, the company announced layoffs of up to
30,000 people in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
matter how bad things get, something good can come out of it,
he said. You have to believe in yourself. If not that, then
what can you believe in?