A group of 1968 Roosevelt Junior-Senior High School graduates have been pushing to have a classmate honored by the school district, hoping her achievements will be as much of an inspiration to today’s students as those of sports stars.
Brenda V. Daniels, who died of cancer in 2006 at 56, wrote in her senior yearbook simply that she wanted to be a secretary. She went on to obtain advanced degrees and become a science icon to many of her peers, earning Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Renata Chasman Scholarship, an award for graduate students at the lab.
“She deserves it and she deserves to be remembered by the school district,” said John Guthrie Yates of Levittown, a leader of the drive to honor Daniels. “It also would show that you can be remembered for something other than making it big in sports.” He pointed out that the school has honored former National Basketball Association star Julius Erving, a graduate of the same class as Daniels.
But backers of the effort say they are frustrated by a lack of response from district officials since they started sending letters in 2014.
School board members at last Thursday night’s board meeting said they either didn’t know about the push to honor Daniels or haven’t had time to consider it.
On Friday, Roosevelt School Board President Robert Summerville said the push to honor Daniels “is a good thing. Our children should be able to see that you can rise to the heights in all areas, not just sports. The problem is that there is a long list of people who think a building or something should be named for them or their friend. But we will look closely at the Brenda Daniels request.”
Daniels’ fellow students sent two letters to the district in 2014 and another in 2015. On Dec. 29, 2014, Robert Dixon, a member of the Roosevelt Alumni Association, added his backing to their request with an email to the superintendent, the district clerk and a board member.
In a September 2014 letter to the district, her classmates noted the challenges for a black woman to succeed in the sciences. “Her accomplishments, thus, take on a higher value than those of alumni who entered fields where color barriers had long since fallen by the efforts of others,” the letter stated. “Surely, the rim was set far higher for Brenda than for other members of our class.”
An April 11 letter to the district from classmate Michael V. Bonacorsa, of Essex, Connecticut, cited a study that showed black female scientists “ . . . walk into their laboratories and lecture halls and, on a daily basis, are mistaken for janitors.” He told the board that “your inaction fosters that mindset. Your action can begin to change it.”
After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Daniels received her bachelor’s, masters and doctorate degrees in physics from Stony Brook University and worked at BNL as a protein crystallographer” — studying proteins at the molecular level. She continued her work in the pharmacology department at Stony Brook, focusing on DNA repair proteins. Her mother and two sisters still live in Roosevelt.
Daniels already is honored at the Stony Brook Department of Physiology & Biophysics, which initiated an annual $2,500 memorial scholarship in her name in June 2009. It targets an upper level female underrepresented minority student in any academic department.
“There should be something like that at the high school, too,” said Yates.