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Viva, Cesar

Alums nurture friend’s memory by advancing diversity at UVM
by Thomas Weaver


To 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 they’d 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 it’s a mental image that some of Murillo’s 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 Murillo’s 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 president’s offices in Waterman Building. Though he was strongly in support of building diversity at UVM, Murillo didn’t join in the protest. Civil disobedience wasn’t his style; Murillo preferred to work within the system for change and was a founding member of the Alianza Latina student group.

“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 to communicate.”

Parekh’s brother Greg, also a friend of Murillo’s, lent perspective from the relative calm of his home in London. He was the first to suggest that focusing on an effort in Cesar’s 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 UVM’s 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. We’re 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 Murillo’s network of friends and beyond, they rapidly grew the scholarship to the point where they assisted their first student last fall. And they’ve 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 isn’t designed solely for graduates of New York’s 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 Murillo’s friends saw parallels to their friend’s life. Martinez, who was also accepted at Brown University, says that the scholarship — not only the funding, but also the honor of furthering Murillo’s legacy — tipped the balance in favor of UVM.

“Jose’s culture is a big part of who he is,” Parekh says. “Getting to know him and seeing what he’s 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 Becker’s 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 master’s in education.

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.”