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Heartfelt Dose of Generosity

UCLA medical researcher taps into his retirement fund to provide scholarships for students at Lennox Middle School and give them a chance to go to college

May 09, 1997|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cardiologist Glenn Langer has a lot of heart.

Only weeks away from ending his career as a medical researcher, he has tapped his retirement nest egg to buy books, calculators and museum tickets for strangers who live in one of Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods.

Langer has created personal scholarships for seventh-graders at Lennox Middle School in the hope of getting them into college six years from now.

It is a partial payback for the kind of financial aid that Langer says pulled him out of poverty and turned him into a medical professor and director of the cardiovascular research lab at the UCLA Medical Center.

"I was a Depression kid growing up in Pearl River, N.Y.," he said. "We didn't have a dime. If I hadn't been helped by a private family foundation, who knows where I'd be today."

The unusual middle school scholarships will be used to pay for school supplies now and tuition later at private high schools for seven students. Each $7,000 scholarship includes a stipend for mentors who will work with each youngster and escort them on cultural excursions.

Word that money was available to youngsters in the tiny community that sits beneath the Los Angeles International Airport's landing approach set off a scramble last fall.

Lennox has one of the highest unemployment rates in Los Angeles County. Its school population is 98% minority--predominantly Latino and African American--and more than three-fourths of students have limited English skills.

Sixty-three students competed for six scholarships. Langer increased the ante to seven when so many qualified youngsters surfaced after submitting essays and undergoing interviews with campus administrators.

The winners can scarcely believe their good luck.

"I wanted to cry when I was picked. My family is poor," said 13-year-old Milagro Romero, who spent part of her first $500 installment to buy eight books on a trip to a bookstore with her mentor.

Until her family emigrated from El Salvador three years ago, Milagro had never attended school.

"It was too far from where we lived," she said. "When we came here I couldn't read. I didn't know numbers. Now I'm in pre-algebra."

Milagro revealed in her application essay that her mother, who has four other children, has been unable to find a job. Her father suffered a stroke last year and cannot work.

"I would like to buy my parents a house and be with them to protect them in a safe place," she wrote.

Mentors appointed by the middle school are helping the winners decide how best to spend to their money.

Tynelia Morris, 12, wants to buy a set of encyclopedias.

"No one in my family has finished college," she said. "My goal is to be the first. I want to become either a lawyer or a businesswoman."

Maria Pelayo, also 12, has bought French books and is teaching herself the language.

Michelle Avalos, 13, purchased a dictionary and a $100 scientific calculator with her first installment of scholarship cash. "My mentor said to get a good one, one that would get me through college," she said.

Yessica Barrientos, 12, bought a day planner, school supplies, typewriter ribbons and a bottle of correction fluid. "I don't have a computer yet," she said.

*

Carmen Casillas, 13, said she is already thinking of ways she can create a scholarship fund of her own when she is Langer's age. "If I make it, I want to help kids like he is," she said.

Jesse Chavez, 12, said he is eager to spend part of his money on a private high school. "My parents have always wanted me to go but couldn't afford it," he said.

Private school is high on the list of all seven winners. That's because there is a dropout rate of about 80% at the two public high schools that Lennox Middle School feeds into.

"Without this help, some of them probably wouldn't even finish high school," Darian Gotti, the middle school's assistant principal, said of the winners. "Now they thinking about college.

"I call Glenn 'St. Langer.' "

Langer cringes at that. At first, he didn't even reveal to his colleagues at UCLA the source of the scholarship money.

Instead, he suggested that he had scraped together the cash through private fund-raising. "I wanted to do it anonymously," he said.

He said he became impressed with Lennox youngsters when he began volunteering for the annual science fair and career day events six years ago through an adopt-a-school program that involves UCLA.

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Langer, 68, of Pacific Palisades, retires June 30 from his teaching and research posts. He has spent 31 years at the Westwood campus.

He said his wife, Marianne, approved raiding his retirement plan for the scholarships. "It's her money, too," Langer said.

Lennox Middle School officials said they hope to make the scholarships an annual event by lining up other sources for future grants.

"There are some very good kids here. It breaks your heart to see them not have a chance," said Rita Brenes, an administrative aide at the campus.

"We have 1,600 kids here. We could use another 300 Glenn Langers."

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