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Officers’ legacies are helping area students

A dozen or so college students gathered last week for a lovely luncheon in a room inside Kilcawley Center on the campus of Youngstown State University. Most were accompanied by their parents. Also attending were university officials, including President Jim Tressel, along with other special guests. And there were several uniformed police officers.

At first glance, the makeup of the crowd might have appeared odd to passers-by. But truly, it wasn’t odd at all. You see, the annual event was being held in recognition of this year’s student recipients of the Michael T. Hartzell Memorial Scholarship. Hartzell, a Youngstown police officer, was slain more than 16 years ago while on duty.

The Michael T. Hartzell Memorial Scholarship has existed since 2003. It was created by Howard and Mary Kay Hartzell as part of an endowment to both assist YSU students financially and to honor the legacy of their son.

Officer Hartzell, a Youngstown patrolman, died April 29, 2003, in the line of duty at age 26. He was shot in an unprovoked attack as he sat in his police cruiser in downtown Youngstown.

A few months later, his grieving parents made the decision to honor their son’s memory by creating a scholarship in his name to assist the children of local law enforcement officers attending Youngstown State University or students studying criminal justice at YSU.

Years of fundraising followed, largely via regular golf outings in which proceeds benefited the scholarship’s endowment. Through investment of the funds and other assistance, organized fundraising efforts now have ended.

Still, Heather Chunn, vice president of operations at the Youngstown State University Foundation, tells me the scholarship will continue in perpetuity, with the assistance of the endowment. The foundation is the designated philanthropic entity of Youngstown State University.

Through the years, the Hartzell scholarship has evolved into one of the largest endowments at the YSU Foundation, now holding more than $360,000, which will continue to grow and be gifted in the future.

Since its startup in 2003, the Hartzell scholarship has assisted 157 recipients by awarding $142,987. This year, 21 YSU students were gifted about $27,000.

In an unrelated incident on Oct. 21, 2017, Girard police Officer Justin A. Leo, 31, also was killed in the line of duty — gunned down while responding to a domestic violence call.

Late this summer, Officer Leo’s parents, David and Patricia Leo, also generously began a scholarship program, the Officer Justin A. Leo “324” Memorial Scholarships, to honor their son’s legacy. Justin Leo was a 2017 YSU graduate and a 2009 graduate of the YSU Police Academy.

Five different Officer Leo endowments are being created for students with varying majors and interests, and already this academic year, two scholarships have been awarded. The goal of the Leo scholarships is to serve as a “lasting legacy to honor Justin’s dedication to duty and his selfless nature in serving others.”

The loss of both of these fine police officers was senseless.

But it should stand as a wonderful example that these families have been able to salvage something positive from the cold and heartless acts. They have succeeded in turning tragedy into something meaningful and kind.

Last week Chunn told me that, at times, she has run into past scholarship recipients who share their gratitude, sometimes with emotional or touching words.

“We are extremely grateful for this. It was a huge tragedy that they have turned into something positive,” Chunn said.

While I know it can never make the loss of a police officer or, especially, a son even slightly acceptable or OK, I’m sure in many ways, it helps them to know that what they are doing in their sons’ names is worthwhile and right.

Contributions for these and other scholarships are accepted from both individual or corporate donors. Information is available at www.ysufoundation.com.

blinert@tribtoday.com