A crusade by parents to establish a scholarship in the memory of their late son has been achieved with the inaugural James Lebowitz Memorial Computer Science Scholarship.
Thomas Sedlak, a sophomore computer science student, was awarded the $2,000 scholarship at a ceremony in the College of Science on July 8. The scholarship will be awarded annually to an undergraduate.
The scholarship drive began after the death of James Lebowitz, a freshman computer science student, in January. His parents wanted to honor his memory and give back to a campus community that welcomed their son with open arms. In 100 days, the parents raised $50,000 to endow the scholarship.
Between twinges of emotion and bouts of laughter, computer science lecturer Edwin Rodriguez, kidney recipient George Martinez, therapist Glenn Mejia and former Palmitas resident advisor Daryl Frigillana (coincidentally, the son of Mejia) shared stories about James at the ceremony.
To many people, going off to college is regarded as a rite of passage. For James, it was an unexpected accomplishment.
He was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, at age 6, and experts said he might never be able to live independently. But Paul and Susan Lebowitz refused to give up on their son. They sought the help of outside specialists and battled school administrators to get James the help he needed. Most of all, they showered their son with love.
James had always been bright and cheerful, but school overwhelmed him. His teachers thought he wouldn’t pay attention. The fact was he simply couldn’t meet an adult’s eyes.
“It was too intense,” recalls his father, Paul Lebowitz. “His nerves were over-tuned. Any stray noise was a distraction. He fidgeted constantly and seemed unable to follow directions.
“One day they called me up, and the principal said, ‘Come get your kid. He’s been underneath his desk having a fit for hours,’ ” he recalls. “This is a kid who took the Gifted and Talented Education test and pretty much maxed it out, and yet he can’t sit still in his chair.”
Experts say that people with Asperger’s lack empathy. That’s not how Paul Lebowitz remembers his son. James didn’t have the tools to read others’ emotions, but that didn’t mean he was unfeeling.
James had been bullied in middle school, and the experience seemed to leave him with an enhanced sense of compassion for others. In high school, James came to realize that he could help others in his skills groups, says Jena Durnay, a speech therapist who worked with James at Scripps Ranch High School in San Diego. James blossomed in his junior and senior years.
The biggest transformation came in the weeks after James moved to Cal Poly Pomona to study computer science. He didn’t merely live on his own. He thrived, academically and socially.
“James was in the top 5 percent of all students I have ever had in any of my classes, if not the top 1 percent,” Rodriguez wrote in a letter to the Lebowitz family.
The Cal Poly Pomona community welcomed James, a fact that his parents attributed to the sense of acceptance the school nourishes. For the first time in his life, James made friends on his own. After winter break, he couldn’t wait to return.
“James went back to Pomona a day early because he wanted to get back to his friends. For him, that was incredible,” Paul Lebowitz says. “I wish we’d had another day with him, but he was where he wanted to be.”
Less than two weeks later, Paul and Susan Lebowitz woke to a hammering at the door of their San Diego home. It was a police officer, bearing unspeakable news: A blood vessel had burst in James’ brain.
They rushed to be with their son. At 5 a.m. on a foggy highway, they took a call from a neurosurgeon at Pomona Valley Hospital. James’ higher brain function had ceased. He couldn’t be helped.
In the hospital later that morning, one of James’ doctors suggested the Lebowitzes consider donating their son’s organs.
“Sue and I just nodded,” Paul Lebowitz says. “Why would we compound the most profound tragedy that we could possibly face by wasting the opportunity to give life to other people?”
From his son’s bedside, Paul Lebowitz reached out on Facebook, asking that anyone who knew someone on an organ donor list to contact him. One of those who responded was Tommy Gomes. Gomes had struggled with addiction, and the man who got him back on track — the man Gomes credits with saving his life — is George Martinez. Martinez needed a kidney.
In an outpouring of emotion, the Cal Poly Pomona community gathered to say goodbye. On the lawn in front of James’ freshman residence hall, Palmitas, more than 150 students and faculty members gathered for a candlelight vigil. They shared stories and tears. President Soraya M. Coley attended. So did the custodian who recalled that James always greeted him with a smile.
A few hours later, Paul Lebowitz says, “We escorted James into the operating room and kissed him goodbye one last time. His heart was matched with an 18-year-old — the same age as our dear son.” His organs saved five people and gave sight to two others. His bone and tissue will benefit about 50 people.
The organ donations leave a powerful legacy, but Paul and Susan Lebowitz wanted their son to be remembered at the university where he had come into his own, a community he loved and that loved him back.
“I can’t think of another tribute that would be so lasting and meaningful,” Paul Lebowitz says. “Even his organ donation will last only one person’s lifetime. This scholarship is forever. As long as there’s a Cal Poly Pomona, students will be awarded that scholarship. I think that’s a beautiful thing.”