When the 9/11 Memorial was dedicated on the 10th Anniversary of September 11th, Stevens Institute of Technology alumna Dening Lohez joined thousands of other families at the memorial site.
Dening, 41, was invited to attend the commemoration because her husband, Jérôme Lohez, also a Stevens alumnus, was killed following the attack and collapse of the North Tower where he worked on the 26th floor for Blue Cross Blue Shield.
By September 13, when his name did not appear on any of the survivor lists, he was classified as missing. As the weeks passed, Dening said her intuition told her that he was gone. But, as painful as the time was, she made a commitment to herself to help her husband’s name live on through a foundation. The Lohez 9/11 Scholarship Foundation was established in 2005.
For Dening, it’s been a long journey to the 10-year anniversary. First, she had to share the news with her husband’s family in France immediately after the attacks. She then went eight months before receiving final confirmation of her husband’s death. Since that time, she has established the foundation with some money received from life insurance and the victims’ fund, made career changes, and earned another graduate degree from Columbia University.
While Dening usually spends the day quietly, this year she chose to be part of the anniversary dedication. “I wanted to be downtown with other families to show solidarity,” Dening says.
Solidarity and unity is a mantra that Dening has held dear since she migrated to America from China in 1986. Her love of America is one of the things that she and Jérôme shared when they met as graduate students at Stevens in the mid 1990s. He was attending Stevens as part of an exchange program from École pour L'informatique et les Techniques Avancées (EPITA) in Paris.
“One of the most special things about Jérôme was his love of America,” she says. “Since high school he had made up his mind that he would come to America, which is very unusual for a French man.”
Like so many other college romances, they met because they lived in the same residence: In this case, Hayden Hall.
“I was a year ahead of him,” she recalls. “He lived on the second floor and I was on the fourth. He always came to see my next door neighbor to watch TV. We saw each other so many times in the corridor. We were introduced, then we dated.”
The dating led to marriage upon completion of their graduate studies (she in 1996 with a degree in electrical engineering, and he in 1997 with a degree in computer science). They spoke their vows on Oct. 3, 1998 at City Hall in New York City before flying to Paris the next week for a church wedding on Oct. 10.
“We were very happy. Lovebirds. And because, at that time, Y2K, engineering was in demand, life looked rosy and promising. It was euphoria and we were happy in general,” says Dening.
After being married they lived not far from campus in Jersey City. Dening worked at UBS Paine Webber in Weehawken as a network architect, designing the telecom network for the trading floor. She later left UBS and joined Qwest Telecommunications in the same building at Lincoln Harbor. Jérôme worked with Sun Microsystems as a consultant for years before joining Blue Cross Blue Shield in April of 2001.
Just a few months later he received his green card, and with the ability to now leave the US and return, they planned a trip to France during Labor Day to attend a friend’s wedding.
“It was like destiny, our farewell trip. We saw parents and grandparents and many old friends that we somehow encountered on the streets and in supermarkets,” says Dening. “During our visit we were in Brussels and London, where it was rainy and dark. But when we returned September 9 and landed at JFK, it was only sunshine and sunlight.”
She remembers the morning two days later like it was yesterday. They kissed goodbye at 7:30 AM and each took the PATH to their respective destinations: she on the Hoboken PATH where she would then get a bus to Weehawken. He took the World Trade Center PATH downtown.
By 9:00 AM a colleague had shared the news that a plane had flown into one of the buildings. Dening worked in an office without windows, so she found a TV and turned to CNN.
“I worried. I was in a panic. I knew he was on the 26th floor,” Dening says, remembering thinking that “he had very likely gotten down from his floor.” She called but got his voice mail. “Then when I saw the first tower collapse I called but got no signal. Then we all went down to the ferry. Nobody was saying anything. There was no noise. It was absolutely silent.”
The following few days were a blur of visiting rescue sites with help from family and friends. “Now, I look back, and even though I wasn’t certain, I knew the thing to do was to hold onto him. We didn’t have a child and here is my poor guy, 30 years old, too young. That’s the reason I made the scholarship.”
Though Dening knew she wanted to create a scholarship, it was not until 2003 that she decided what the scholarship would be. She was visiting France in 2003 at the start of the Iraqi War, when French leaders announced that they would not support the war. The decision led to a number of American boycotts against French products, and one shopkeeper told her Americans were “stupid.”
That’s when she decided to make the mission of the foundation “a cultural education exchange in higher education.” Since its creation, the foundation has awarded $40,000 to 17 students. The scholarship is awarded to three graduate students attending Stevens, Columbia University, Harvard University, Princeton University, New York University, the Ecole Polytechnique, Sciences or the Universite Paris I Pantheon-Sorbonne. The foundation awards students attending universities with exchange programs with French universities.
“There is forever one reserved for Stevens because that is my alma mater,” she says. “Of the three awards, one will always be earmarked for a Stevens student.”