Alums nurture friends memory by advancing
diversity at UVM
by Thomas Weaver
hear his friends tell it, life was often good in the eyes of Cesar Murillo
91. But it was especially so when his beloved Colombian National
Soccer team won a big game, which theyd just done on September
9, 2001. Gathered with pals for some Sunday evening volleyball at the
courts along the West Side Highway in lower Manhattan, Murillo was in
a mood to celebrate. Colombian flag in hand, big smile on his face,
Cesar circled on his motorized scooter and sang in Spanish.
The scene offers a thumbnail portrait of the young man, capturing both
his pride of heritage and exuberance for life. And its a mental
image that some of Murillos friends carry with them still, cherished
like a rare family photo, the last time they saw him before he died
in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Things were often electric when Cesar Murillo was around. When his widow,
Alyson Becker 92, and a group of college friends gathered in Burlington
last spring, they traded stories knit together by Murillos indomitable
enthusiasm his excitement for owning a car in car-hostile Manhattan
(aided by a preternatural knack for conjuring a parking space); his
passion for Latin music and dancing; his ability to sing a baby to sleep
with a Spanish lullaby, a skill that made him revered by every friend
with an infant.
A decade after graduation, Murillo had established himself as an expert
in Latin American equities and was happy in his new job as a trader
with Cantor Fitzgerald. He was part of a close circle of young New Yorkers,
many of whom traced their friendship back to college days in Burlington.
The big red-brick Sigma Phi house at the corner of Williams and College
was where many of those relationships started for fraternity brothers
such as Murillo, Aaron Parekh 91, and Rob Burger 91.
Racial diversity on campus the lack of it and push for it
was the hottest issue of their undergraduate era, coming to a head with
the April-May 1991 student takeover of the presidents offices
in Waterman Building. Though he was strongly in support of building
diversity at UVM, Murillo didnt join in the protest. Civil disobedience
wasnt his style; Murillo preferred to work within the system for
change and was a founding member of the Alianza Latina student group.
AFTER THE LOSS
In New York after 9/11 we were just shell-shocked, says
Aaron Parekh, describing his own and his friends first reaction
to the tragedy of 2001 and, in particular, the loss of Murillo. We
all had a feeling and a need to do something, but we were just not able
Parekhs brother Greg, also a friend of Murillos, lent perspective
from the relative calm of his home in London. He was the first to suggest
that focusing on an effort in Cesars honor would be the best thing
friends could do to start working through the grieving process. Greg
knew how much love there was out there for Cesar with everyone, and
he knew how much energy we had, Parekh says.
Murillo, in a sense, had started their work for them. Just four months
before 9/11, Alyson and Cesar had begun talking with staff at UVM about
how they could get involved promoting the University to prospective
students. In late 2001, as a plan for a scholarship fund began to emerge,
the alums were further inspired by a New York Times front-page story
about UVMs partnership program with Christopher Columbus High
School in the Bronx. This is right up our alley, Liza MacKinnon
91 remembers thinking.
None of us have been fundraisers. Were learning how to do
this, says MacKinnon. Juggling their work for the Murillo Fund
with full-time jobs, the group has proven to be quick learners. With
events like Manhattan parties and golf tournaments, and gifts generated
from within Murillos network of friends and beyond, they rapidly
grew the scholarship to the point where they assisted their first student
last fall. And theyve proven adept at continuing to spread the
word with public relations coups such as opening the NASDAQ Stock Market
on June 29 in honor of The Cesar Augusto Murillo Memorial Fund.
The founders chose to establish their own tax-exempt charitable organization
for the Murillo Fund largely because they wanted to have a hand in selecting
scholarship recipients. They look for well-rounded students who will
actively share their culture with the UVM community, students a lot
like Cesar Murillo.
Though the fund isnt designed solely for graduates of New Yorks
Columbus High School, the first recipient of a Murillo Scholarship happens
to be from there. Jose Martinez, whose family is from El Salvador, wrote
an essay of his experience growing up in the Bronx in which Murillos
friends saw parallels to their friends life. Martinez, who was
also accepted at Brown University, says that the scholarship
not only the funding, but also the honor of furthering Murillos
legacy tipped the balance in favor of UVM.
Joses culture is a big part of who he is, Parekh says.
Getting to know him and seeing what hes doing at UVM has
been impressive and has really moved us forward.
Moving forward while looking back is, ultimately, what the Murillo Scholarship
Fund continues to help many accomplish. Since the loss of her husband,
the changes in Alyson Beckers life have included following through
on plans both she and Cesar shared to transition to careers in teaching.
Thanks in part to the encouragement and inspiration of Columbus High
School Principal Jerry Garfin, Becker has earned a masters in
Now living and teaching in Boston, Becker says that as much as she thinks
of her late husband while searching for a parking spot or when a new
dance-friendly song comes on the radio, so it goes when considering
candidates for the scholarship in his memory.
We find ourselves thinking about who Cesar would have picked,
she says. It keeps us very fresh and connected.