Graduate Reaches For The Stars
May 6, 2002-- Hiram 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 tight.
Roman brought little with her from Puerto Rico and couldnt
give her children much, but she fed them and clothed them and loved
them and insisted they work hard in school.
told us we had to work for ourselves, not for her," Legrand
said. "I knew from an early age that if I ever wanted to get
out of Brooklyn, I had to do well in school."
he did. Legrands dedication to his education will pay off
May 19 as he graduates from the University of Virginia 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. "We just put blinders on and kept walking," he
said. 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, pulled Legrand out of school, took him 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
was always food in the house," he said. "There were always
clean clothes. I bought Payless shoes and they had to last a year.
I learned how to save money and take care of things
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 became a master sergeant working
with the Air Combat Command and Legrand finished high school. He
earned top grades and a seat in U.Va.s School of Engineering
and Applied Science. He lined up scholarships to pay for four years
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.
He chooses to focus on the good in life, and this choice has made
him the finest young man I have ever known."
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, which hit the airline industry particularly
is philosophical about his job hunt.
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?"
Charlotte Crystal, (434) 924-6858