The framed photograph nearly said it all -- a beaming young woman wearing her cap and gown, bedecked with a lei and proudly clutching her university diploma.
But there was more that Milagro Romero wanted to convey as she wrote a note accompanying the picture she presented to the man who had sent her to college.
“Dear Dr. Langer,” she began. “Words are simply not enough to show my sincere gratitude. You have been a miracle in my life.”
Glenn Langer, a retired UCLA medical professor and cardiovascular research lab director, 10 years ago began a personal campaign to prepare seventh-graders from one of Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods for college.
Langer tapped his retirement nest egg to buy books, calculators and museum tickets and pay for tuition at a private high school for Romero and six other Lennox Middle School students.
It was a partial payback, Langer said at the time, for the kindness shown by strangers who rescued him from Depression-Era small-town poverty by giving him a college scholarship. That schooling launched a medical career that was capped with a 31-year tenure at the Westwood campus.
Back in 1996, though, Langer figured he was staging a one-time raid on his pension.
He had met the Lennox youngsters at a school career day and had been impressed with them and their teachers. So he decided that over the next six years he would donate a total of $8,600 to each of them to cover the cost of educational supplies and expenses of mentors who agreed to work with each student.
When the first seven students thrived, Langer decided to sponsor another bunch in 1997, another in 1998 and another in 1999. By then he had committed $235,000 of his savings. Langer estimates that he has spent more than $600,000 of his retirement income on the effort.
Six students are the first of Langer’s 1996 group to graduate from college. Five of them returned to their old middle school the other day for a reunion with their benefactor.
“Seeing them is indescribable,” said Langer, 78, who now lives in the Northern California hamlet of Little River, population 412.
“Seeing their success is unbelievably exciting. How often can you say you’ve literally helped change somebody’s life for the better?”
But that’s what happened to them, said Maria Pelayo Falcone, 21, who will soon graduate from Cal State Long Beach and pursue a doctorate in social psychology. This summer, at the University of Minnesota, she will research the issue of age and loneliness.
“I really do not know where I would be without his generosity,” she said. “Anytime I feel like giving up I think about the hope and faith he and other people have in me.”
Michelle Avalos, 22, purchased a dictionary and a $100 scientific calculator with her first installment of scholarship cash back in 1996. Her mentor had urged her to buy a good one that would last through college -- which turned out to be Pepperdine University. She graduated last month with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Now working as a substitute teacher as she eyes a business career, Avalos said Langer’s involvement as a mentor was the turning point in her life. Her single-parent mother was stretched thin taking care of younger siblings, she said. “The scholarship enabled me to surround myself by people who believe in me,” she said.
Jesse Chavez, 21, wrapping up his senior year at UC Riverside with a major in film and visual culture, said he and the others now recognize that Langer “took a colossal chance” on them.
“He came into my life at a time when I was feeling low and, to a degree, skeptical about my future,” Chavez said. “He changed everything for me ... so many good things happened.”
Tynelia Morris, also 21, is completing sociology studies at Cal State Dominguez Hills and planning a career in social work. Without Langer’s intervention, she said, “Who knows where I would be today?”
Morris credits her experience with Langer’s program and her mentor with shaping her career goal of working with children. “He changed my life. I want to do the same thing,” she said.
Romero experienced the most dramatic turnaround.
Now 23, the recent Loyola Marymount University graduate with degrees in humanities and Spanish literature is working this summer as a trainee with Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
Romero had never attended school until she emigrated from El Salvador when she was 10. “I couldn’t read. I couldn’t spell my own name. I didn’t know numbers,” she said.
When family hardships left her homeless in her senior year of high school, her seventh-grade scholarship program mentor, Marina Wallis, took her in and served as her guardian, Romero said. “I would have definitely been lost without this program.”
Two of the original scholars were missing from the reunion. Yessica Barrientos, a senior in criminal justice at Cal State Dominguez Hills, was unable to attend; Maria Casillas left the program when she moved from the area.
As the scholarship program graduates posed with Langer for a photo similar to one taken on a library stairway in 1996, Lennox Middle School assistant principal Meg Sanchez recalled how she had been startled back then that Langer was starting with seventh-graders to prepare them for college.
“It was brilliant,” said Sanchez, who serves as the unpaid executive director of the program.
She now works with a board of trustees who hope to make the program self-perpetuating. “Glenn reminds the board, ‘Hey, folks, I’m not going to be around forever,’ ” Sanchez said.
These days, the program Langer calls Partnership Scholars has expanded from Lennox Middle School to 18 other campuses in Los Angeles and Mendocino counties. It seeks poor but motivated applicants: Sixth-graders must have a 3.0 grade-point average, write an essay on why they hope to go to college and have the backing of a supportive parent or guardian.
“We do a lot of screening and interviews” to narrow the list to the number of newcomers that the program can accept each year, Sanchez said. That number is calculated by donations: Scholarships now cost a total of $9,800 per student. “It’s always a tough decision.”
So far, 317 middle-school pupils have received Partnership scholarships. Sixty-two of the 74 recipients who so far have finished high school have gone on to four-year universities.
Along with the annual search (www.partnershipscholars.org) for donors willing to finance next year’s new crop of seventh-grade scholars, Langer is working to create an endowment to fund future generations of underprivileged middle-school students.
He said he doesn’t think twice about the money he has spent to administer the program. He and his wife, Marianne, have about $2 million in assets, including equity in their home, from university pay and investments.
But now, Langer said, “I feel this program will survive me.”