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Graduates Remember Slain Classmate

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 earned.

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 cannot succeed.

"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 said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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