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Worthless Words: CPS yet to dole out scholarships decade after E2 disaster

10 years after E2 nightclub disaster Gale Garrett her family are mourning for her daughter TeresJohnson-Gordon. Gordhad three kids including

10 years after the E2 nightclub disaster, Gale Garrett and her family are mourning for her daughter, Teresa Johnson-Gordon. Gordon had three kids, including Monte Johnson,19, right, who Garrett raised. Garrett says promised help from CPS in raising her grandson never materialized. She held a letter from then-CPS CEO Arne Duncan. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 18, 2013 6:57AM



For years after her daughter was tragically crushed to death alongside 20 other young revellers in a nightclub stampede, Gale Garrett took solace from a heartfelt letter from a powerful man.

Carefully folded inside a well-thumbed envelope and dated May 23, 2003, the handwritten note from the then head of Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan, gave her hope that she wouldn’t be raising her orphaned 9-year-old grandson Monte alone.

“I saw how strong you are,” Duncan wrote after meeting a proud and determined Garrett. “Your grandchildren are very, very lucky to have you in their lives. Please let me know if I can ever do anything to be helpful.”

A decade later, Garrett doesn’t want to sound bitter, but she wonders: “Is the letter worth the paper it’s written on?”

Though Duncan — now President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education — helped set up a college scholarship fund for the 37 children who lost parents in the E2 nightclub stampede, CPS officials have yet to dole out a single dollar.

CPS says it’s been busy drawing up a protocol to determine who is eligible for a $3,000 grant, but Monte — now 19 and still waiting for his scholarship — was recently forced to drop out of his sophomore classes at South Carolina State University and return to Chicago because he could no longer afford tuition.

“They shouted loudly about how these kids were gonna have scholarship funds to go to college,” Garrett says of CPS’s response to the February 17, 2003 South Loop disaster that killed Monte’s mom and captured international headlines. “It’s been ten years! I’ve been calling them since May but they keep brushing me off.”

***

A decade after the E2 tragedy, much remains unresolved. Lawsuits rumble on, while nightclub owners Dwain Kyles and Calvin Hollins are still waiting to hear from the Illinois Supreme Court if they will serve prison time for allegedly violating an earlier order to close the overcrowded second-floor club.

Twenty-one young black clubbers were asphyxiated in a scrum of bodies at the bottom of a staircase after a security worker triggered panic by unleashing a mist of pepper spray in a bid to break up a fight at the club in the 2300 block of South Michigan.

While the grotesque reports of contorted bodies, gasping for air as they were trapped against an inward opening door appalled the public, the plight of the three dozen children who lost parents did not escape notice either.

R&B superstar R. Kelly and Chicago Bulls guard Jalen Rose both made substantial donations, and a month after the tragedy, Duncan announced the creation of CPS’s own college scholarship fund.

“We could think of no better way of assisting these children than by offering them the opportunity to attend college,” Duncan said at the time, encouraging others “to give generously” to the fund.

Monte was one of many bereaved children raised by a grandparent. His father died when he was just 1.

In the aftermath of his mother’s death, he told his grandmother he wanted to be a doctor. “If I would have been in one of those ambulances, I would have known what to do and my mom would have lived,” he told her.

When he was accepted into the premed program at South Carolina State in 2011, she was overjoyed.

As a teacher, Garrett always pushed him academically, also encouraging him to tackle his chronic asthma by learning the trumpet.

It was his musical skills that won him a marching band scholarship to SCSU, but that financial support, he says, wasn’t enough.

***

Speaking Friday, CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said Monte’s family and others whose children are approaching college age will soon receive letters explaining how they can get their share of the $118,000 fund.

After nearly a year of battling bureaucracy, Garrett hopes Monte will get his scholarship in time to return to school next semester.

He was one of the oldest children to lose a parent, and one of the first to attend college, but dozens of younger children affected by the E2 disaster “are coming up the pike, and they’re going to need help, too,” Garrett said.

When her family, including Monte’s younger brother Jonathan and sister Tiera, gathers at her Braidwood home this Sunday, as it does each anniversary of her daughter’s death, they’ll eat the food Teresa loved; turkey, macaroni cheese and greens.

They’ll remember that she died on her 31st birthday, a day after she went to get her “paws and claws” done at a nail salon with her mom. She had her nails painted gold, and left a little longer than her mom approved of.

Garrett will never forget seeing her daughter’s hands the next day at the Cook County morgue.

“There wasn’t a single nail left — she was scratching to her last breath, trying to get out for 41 minutes,” Garrett said.

“I’ve been fighting ever since to raise my grandson — I’m not asking for a handout, just a chance to educate.

“When we’re done, we’re going to say to the world, ‘Look at this wonderful young man — and watch what he can do.’”



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