June 25, 2005
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer
NEW BRITAIN -- For Fred and Ida Johnson, it was a bittersweet scene
Friday night as 184 seniors at Hartford Public High School took the
stage to receive their diplomas. Despite the joy that washed over
the ceremony, the Johnsons - along with everyone else who knew their
son - couldn't help thinking, "It should have been 185."
Earlier this month, the couple's 19-year-old son, Derek Benford
Jr., was killed when a man walked up to him less than a block from
his home and punched him in the face. The punch sent Benford sprawling
back onto the sidewalk, causing a fatal head injury.
The death devastated not only Benford's parents and family members,
but the entire Class of 2005 at Hartford Public, where he was a
widely known and loved classmate, killed just hours after attending
his senior prom.
Friday night, as the graduation ceremony began, Principal Mark
Zito asked Benford's parents to join him on the stage at Central
Connecticut State University to receive the diploma their son had
The couple stood on the stage as the students rose and offered
an ovation that lasted several minutes. Ida Johnson wiped a tear
from her eye before she and her husband returned to their seats
to watch their son's classmates receive their diplomas.
"We were touched by the love the kids showed Derek," Fred
Johnson said. "It's good to know everyone loved him so much,
but it would be better if he was here with us to see it for himself."
A representative from the office
of Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez provided a proclamation declaring
Friday "Derek Benford Day" in
Hartford. Perez, a Hartford Public alumnus, could not attend Friday
because of an illness in the family.
Zito and other school officials said Benford's zest for life was
typical for a class in which over 90 percent of the graduates plan
to go on to college. Robert Henry, the superintendent of Hartford
schools, told the graduates to use the bonds of learning and love
that they acquired at Hartford Public to fill their lives with
happiness and success.
In his speech to his classmates, salutatorian Alexis Valle congratulated
them for their persistence in earning their diplomas. He said too
many young people in Hartford give in to the perception that they
"We are proof that, as youth living in Hartford, we can defy
stereotypes," he said.
Fellow classmate Melissa Yennie credited her teachers with showing
her that she could emerge from the shadows of her older brother
and sister and find her own identity as an accomplished student.
"They taught me, `I am the real Yennie,'" she
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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