Oliver LaGrone, noted poet, sculptor, educator and humanitarian, believed in educating through generosity. He wanted to make education possible and dreams come true.
In 1974, LaGrone inspired members of the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg (UCH) to establish a scholarship in his name. He wanted to help graduates of the Harrisburg School District attend college so they could lead more productive, successful lives.
This past June, that dream came true for one Harrisburg grad, Merced Ramirez, now a sophomore at Messiah College. He was awarded $5,500 as the 2014 recipient of the Oliver LaGrone Scholarship.
“The LaGrone Scholarship helped me stay at Messiah,” he said. “I thought of transferring to another college that offered a full scholarship. But my professors at Messiah helped me work through my financial challenges, and, with the LaGrone Scholarship, I found a way to continue at Messiah.”
LaGrone, a committed Unitarian Universalist, was not a Pennsylvania native. He found his way here in 1970 after accepting a position teaching art education and African-American history at Penn State. He also was artist-in-residence at Penn State Harrisburg and held a similar position with the Hershey Foundation and Boas Center of Learning for the Harrisburg School District.
Several of his sculptures are prominently displayed in the UCH. In fact, proceeds from the sale of his sculpture, “The Dancer,” helped provide initial funding for the scholarship. His sculptures also can be seen in the LaGrone Cultural Arts Center at Penn State Harrisburg.
Meeting Ramirez at Cornerstone Coffeehouse in Camp Hill, I was introduced to a bright, articulate and witty young man. Graduating in the top 5 percent of his class from Harrisburg SciTech High, mathematics and languages were his favorite subjects.
While in high school, he was a member of the National Honor Society, Youth and Government Club, varsity soccer team and track and field team. He also participated with the Joshua Group, an at-risk youth mentoring organization in Harrisburg. That experience inspired his strong commitment to helping others and serving his community. Dedicated and driven, Ramirez now is majoring in international business with a minor in Chinese.
He does his best to make ends meet. He has a job at UPS this summer and hopes to be a residential advisor during his junior year. After graduation, he plans to work abroad collaborating with professionals from many backgrounds and careers.
When asked how he will give back to his alma mater, Ramirez said he wants to help students who struggle financially, providing secure pathways, allowing them to stay at Messiah and finish their education.
“My message is don’t let hard times destroy the possibility of a great future,” he said. “Don’t let disadvantages set you back. Make the hardest times the best times. Use them to grow and overcome adversity.”
In May of 1992, at the age of 84, LaGrone journeyed back to Harrisburg to celebrate the revitalized scholarship. Redefined to suit more diverse needs, the scholarship now may be used for any legitimate cost connected with schooling, such as tuition, books, room and board, transportation and childcare.
Margaret Carrow, chairwoman of the selection panel for the Oliver LaGrone Scholarship program, believes that a strong educational foundation can help people make a difference in the world.
“I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was fortunate to attend Clark University in Worcester, Mass.,” she said. “By chairing this committee, I am assuring that students have their chance to go to college and make a difference in the communities in which they live.”
The scholarship is given based on motivation to completion of one’s education despite obstacles, as well as financial need and knowledge and skills gained from life.
A unique feature of the scholarship is its mentoring component. A member of the UCH is matched with the scholarship recipient to provide personal support and encouragement throughout his or her education.
“My mentor understands me and the adversity that I have overcome,” said Ramirez, pausing before summarizing what the scholarship is really all about. “This is a great opportunity.”