Bound by Generosity

For at least one Meyerhoff Scholar, a chance to return the favor.

November 02, 2005|By JOE BURRIS | JOE BURRIS,SUN REPORTER

They were philanthropists who founded a scholarship program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to ensure that more blacks, particularly males, graduated with degrees in math and science.

He was typical of many students who had earned one of their free rides to college -- bright, determined and short on high school friends who shared his passion for biology class.

Yet during his stint at UMBC, Meyerhoff Scholarship recipient Andrew Atiemo of Oxon Hill could never find the right time to fully convey his gratitude to Robert and Jane Meyerhoff -- even though the couple made a point to get to know the scholarship recipients.

For four years, at functions and parties the Meyerhoffs held, Atiemo was just one of dozens of scholarship recipients, although in the customary scholarship class photo taken during his senior year in 1996, he stood right behind the couple, towering over the diminutive Jane.

The next time the three would be in the same room together was eight years later, in October last year, at Johns Hopkins Hospital: Jane Meyerhoff lay unconscious, heavily sedated after having undergone major heart surgery. Robert Meyerhoff stood by her side, overcome with sorrow, not knowing whether his wife of nearly 50 years would pull through.

Yet for a brief moment his attention shifted to a tall black doctor in the group of cardiologists tending to his wife. It was good to see him, Meyerhoff thought, in a line of work where black men are so few, and he wondered about the man's background.

The black doctor approached, asking Meyerhoff for written permission to perform a complex cardiac assessment procedure on his wife. Meyerhoff signed the form and thanked him, and then was stunned when the doctor offered his own words of thanks:

"He said, `Mr. Meyerhoff, you probably don't remember me, but I'm a Meyerhoff Scholar, and you paid my tuition to college,'" said Meyerhoff, 81, reflecting upon the moment recently in the wake of UMBC renaming its chemistry and biochemistry building after the couple last month.

The doctor was Atiemo who, having gone on from UMBC to Harvard Medical School, was now a postdoctoral cardiology fellow at Hopkins.

"I'm honored," he told Meyerhoff, "to participate in your wife's care in any way I can, because you've done so much for me and many others."

"It was just wonderful," Meyerhoff said, "the idea that it came home, that it would come back to us like that."

That he would reunite with Atiemo at Jane Meyerhoff's bedside was fitting -- she was the one who insisted her husband get his idea for a science scholarship off the ground.

For years, Meyerhoff had become increasingly dismayed about how few young people of any color seemed to have the same passion for science as did previous generations. He was particularly troubled by the dwindling numbers of African-American men graduating with degrees in the sciences, and created the scholarship program that was launched in 1989 when 19 Meyerhoff Scholars entered UMBC.

Now in its 16th year, the scholarship has become widely renown for producing graduates who go on to some of the top medical programs in the country.

And yet even as its graduates spread out far and wide, the program can sometimes seem like an extended, Baltimore-based family as the scholarship recipients not only take Meyerhoff's money, but also his name. On campus, the scholars refer to themselves as "Meyerhoffs" and have a Meyerhoff family support group. To be a Meyerhoff means you're among an elite group of exceptionally gifted students in pursuit of the sciences, with a benefactor who regularly keeps in touch and sometimes visits to see how you're doing.

As a graduate of Polytechnic Institute who went on to earn a degree in civil engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Meyerhoff knew first-hand the importance of nurturing an interest in science early on.

"We've always been interested in helping the underprivileged. Jane and I always thought that we have this underclass, not just blacks, but blacks and whites, that we don't use," said Meyerhoff. "We thought, `How do we get this underclass in the mainstream?'"

He said he focused his attention on black males because "we had read many times about African-American men being an endangered species and the shortage of African-American scientists and engineers."

Initially Meyerhoff sought to turn his attentions to only Maryland high school kids. Then, he met Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the visionary president at UMBC, and the two crafted a program that would become a magnet for some of the most talented kids around the country.

The Meyerhoffs initially intended only to pay for 20 students in four years. But the program grew in a big way, drawing youngsters who may have never acted upon an interest in the sciences past high school.

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