Entries from Jun 1997
MIKE BARNICLE IN THE BOSTON GLOBE: Two Who Chose to be something


June 15, 1997

So here she came the other day, walking through the haze of a humid afternoon, walking proudly up Adams Street in Dorchester past a line of red brick rowhouses where children sat on stoops seeking relief from the heat, walking right into a future filled now with potential due to her own diligence.

Her name is Phong Tran and she is 17 and she has only been in the United States since 1991 — time enough, though, to finish at the top of her Cathedral High class and win a four-year scholarship to UMass-Amherst, where she will be one more Vietnamese student representing the constant American spirit of renewal “It is like a dream,” Phong Tran pointed out. “I am so grateful. I am so happy.”

“With no scholarship, where would you go?” she was asked.

“To work,” Phong Tran replied.

“What do you want to be?”

“A doctor,” she said right away. “So I can help others. So I can repay people for my good fortune.”

The young woman earned her fortune all by herself. And she is only one of 83 premier students from across the state who have been granted a gift worth $8,000 a year simply because they were smart enough to be smart.

The University Scholars program is a new benefit provided by the state’s university system. This year, four-year scholarships were offered to those seniors who finished first or second in their classes at each of Massachusetts’ 400 public and private high schools. Tomorrow, many of the 83 who accepted the scholarships will be honored at a State House reception.

For decades, the UMass system has been smeared by elitists and relegated to second-class status in a commonwealth that boasts a long line of more famous and more expensive private institutions. But, whether at Harvard or UMass-Lowell, nobody is ever given an education, only the opportunity to get one — grab one, really — and that chance is not lost on those students and families going now for free.

“My daughter is very ambitious,” the Rev. Earl McDowell was saying Friday. “We teach all our children to be ambitious, to have goals and go after them. She did, too.”

Rev. McDowell was sitting in the second-floor parlor of his Roxbury apartment along with his wife, Patricia. The two parents were crazy with pride over their daughter Valerie, who topped the ticket at Madison Park High and will be going to UMass-Boston in September. Both young women — Phong Tran from Vietnam and Valerie McDowell from Guild Street — take a splendiferous spirit off to their amazing new world.

“She just graduated last night,” Patricia McDowell explained. “She was the valedictorian. The ceremony was at Matthews Arena, and she walked in with all the dignitaries.”

“I had tears in my eyes,” her husband added.

“She’s the first in our family to ever go to a four-year college,” the mother said.

“She worked hard for it,” Rev. McDowell said. “She had three part-time jobs all year, too. This scholarship is a true blessing because, as you can see, I took a vow of poverty.”

“He took it seriously, too,” his wife laughed.

“Valerie has always been a straight-A student,” the proud father continued. “At the Nathan Hale. At the Wheatley and all through Madison Park. We are firm believers in public education, but it’s a matter of determination and parental involvement whether your children do well.

“It’s not up to society, to the city, or to the police to provide children with goals and ambitions. It’s up to us as her mother and father,” Rev. McDowell stated. “If a black youth is nothing, it means they chose to be nothing.”

“Basically, we have tried to be our daughter’s best friends as well as her parents,” Patricia McDowell added. “It’s good that way. We were able to guide her away from trouble, and if our children meet someone not up their standards, we let them know. And they just say `goodbye.’ “

Now, the valedictorian from the night before was ready to go to work on the morning after her triumph. Valerie McDowell, symbol of any future we might have, is a marvelous young woman who only dreamed of a university education prior to the gift of a four-year scholarship.

But sometimes dreams come true. And sometimes hard work, discipline, and dedication are rewarded, and when that happens, the grateful — like Valerie McDowell and Phong Tran — head to college, two magnificent investments in a state of mind.

MIKE BARNICLE IN THE BOSTON GLOBE: Home was just 50 yards away


June 8, 1997

Orla Benson, murdered on Sept. 23, 1995, in an Allston playground, was young and alive again Friday as her biographer discussed her wonderful life in glowing terms while a Suffolk Superior Court jury was being selected to try the man charged with her killing. Benson had come from Ireland that summer to work when she was raped and stabbed to death by a degenerate who left her dead in the dark on the steps of Ringer Park.

“Orla was a nice girl,” Thomas O’Leary was saying. “She was young and pretty and totally innocent. And she had just spent the happiest night of her life in Boston when this happened. She would have graduated from college that fall “She was out with about 30 friends. They had been to South Boston, to Cambridge, to Brighton. They rented a trolley for a party to celebrate a girl’s wedding, and they were going home to Ireland in a few days. She was 50 yards from her apartment.”

O’Leary today is Orla Benson’s voice, her best friend in court. He is a sergeant of police with the Homicide Unit, and his duty since early in the day that Sept. 23 has been to bring her killer to court and help deliver some measure of justice to her horribly wounded family.

It is always an event of tremendous significance, the murder of a human being. And whether it is multiple counts, as in Oklahoma City, or a single victim, the word “closure” becomes something for glib psychiatrists or talk-show callers because the pain of survivors is of such depth and duration that it simply becomes part of their own existence.

“Plenty of sleepless nights over this one,” O’Leary said. “I can see her sometimes. I know her.”

In the courtroom, Benson’s father, Tom, an engineer from Killarney, sits daily not 10 feet behind Tony Rosario, a convicted rapist who is accused of forever silencing the sounds of Tom Benson’s only daughter’s life. The elder Benson is of slight build and has a soft spring rain of a smile and gentle blue eyes permanently dulled by this inexcusable death.

Rosario is 29 now. He was born in New York and brought up in Boston, where he was a menace. All last week, he wore a blue sweatshirt, black pants, black sneakers, leg irons and no hint of expression on a face unfamiliar with remorse as he listened to pretrial arguments of the prosecutor, James Larkin, and the objections of his own gifted appointed counsel, Roger Witkin, in the third-floor room where a panel of citizens will address the brutality of Orla Benson’s murder.

Rosario is a living advertisement for the flaws of a system where a single bureaucratic error can result in a monstrous evil being committed. In 1991, he was convicted of raping and beating a woman at the Forest Hills T station. He got 10 years but was out two years later.

Free on probation, he was arrested on April 24, 1994, for raping a 14-year-old runaway at knifepoint after she fled, naked, from his car. But the runaway kept right on running and would not testify, so Rosario went unconvicted.

He was indicted for unarmed robbery in Cambridge, but somehow never had his probation revoked. Then on July 31, 1995, seven weeks before Orla Benson died, Rosario was grabbed for the rape of a 15-year-old special needs student in Brighton. She had been working for Rosario, who had, quite amazingly, been hired by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to boss teenagers retained for a summer of cleaning playgrounds.

“He told her unless she had sex with him, she wouldn’t get paid,” a lawyer familiar with the case of the special needs student said, adding that Rosario took her to his apartment on Glenville Avenue in Allston “and told her: No sex, no check. But, because she was retarded, he beat it.”

“He never should have been out,” Tom O’Leary said. “The system took a hit for him being on the payroll. Probation took a hit, too. But Orla took the biggest hit of all.”

Thursday, Rosario had an opportunity for minimal decency when he accepted, then reneged, on an agreement that had him pleading guilty to first-degree murder. But lunch with jailhouse lawyers, along with success in beating the system and making a sad joke of probation, caused him to change his mind.

So Tom Benson and his family will be forced to endure a trial where his daughter will die again; a trial where judge and jury will surely see in the testimony offered that this world needs people like Orla Benson as much as it needs a sunrise, because her biographer remains on the case, insistent on delivering his message.

“I know her,” said Sergeant Thomas O’Leary. “She was a wonderful girl.”