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U.Va. Graduate Reaches For The Stars

May 6, 2002-- Hiram Legrand rarely saw the stars from the windows of his family‘s crowded apartment in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. It was a rough-and-tumble neighborhood where life was fast and money was tight.

Marisol Roman brought little with her from Puerto Rico and couldn’t give her children much, but she fed them and clothed them and loved them and insisted they work hard in school.

"She 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."

And he did. Legrand’s dedication to his education will pay off May 19 as he graduates from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering and a minor in philosophy. He hopes to pursue a career as an astronaut.

It hasn’t 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.

"Being shorter than most kids makes you tougher," he said.

Still, his mother’s words made an impression on him and he consistently earned A’s and B’s in school.

Life 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.

"At first, I laughed. I thought they were joking," Legrand said. "But they weren’t. 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.’ "

Perez 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 Legrand’s mother.

"I was mad," Legrand said. "I started acting up."

For two months, he went out looking for trouble. And he found it.

"One day, I was beating up a kid when I looked into his eyes and I saw him saying to me, ‘Please stop. You’re 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."

For 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.

"There 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…But it’s hard for a child to see people he loves waste away."

Perez died in 1992. Legrand’s mother died a year later.

After her death, Legrand’s 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.

"It 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."

After 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 of college.

"Hiram's 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. "It’s 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."

Legrand has had few chances, but he has made the most of them.

"Without my parents dying and my leaving Brooklyn, I’d 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.’

"And when you find meaning, you find happiness," he said.

Legrand 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 hard.

Legrand is philosophical about his job hunt.

"No 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?"

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (434) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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