As he graduates from wharton, maryland boy thinks of tragedy – san francisco chronicle gas tax in washington state


Clare Ogle was Asemani’s house mother at the Milton Hershey School, the Pennsylvania boarding school that Asemani and his siblings attended after their mother was attacked. She and her husband, Will, have kept in touch with Asemani and have become part of his extended family.

"Right outside our office is a desk where students can sit while they’re waiting to talk to us," Ogle said."It pretty quickly became Kayvon’s desk. He would sit there and work his tail off. He wasn’t the No. 1 student in his class because he was the smartest. He was the No. 1 student because he worked the hardest. The chair is probably still warm because of all the time Kayvon spent sitting in it."

But Asemani’s story isn’t just the tale of one remarkable individual. It’s also the story about how the community rallied around three frightened and heartbroken children, from the Ogles to the then-24-year-old cousin who worked three jobs to support the youngsters to Peter Bulgarino, the father of Kayvon’s childhood friend who helped the children gain admittance to the Hershey School.

That support explains why Asemani lives his life in public to an extent that’s unusual even for someone of the generation that grew up on social media. To his chagrin, the slight young man with the big smile long ago hit the limit on the number of Facebook friends any one person can have — 5,000.

"I have 300 unread texts on my phone right now," he said during a recent campus visit during finals week. "I’ve developed a following that cares about what I do, and I want to use that as a platform to make a positive impact. I don’t know when I’m going to find the time to answer all these texts, but I will."

His father, in contrast, is a brilliant man who, according to federal prosecutors, used his gifts to break the law. Court records show that Kayvon’s father, Ghafour Asemani, began serving a 30-month prison sentence in 2000 after he was convicted of criminal health care fraud for practicing dentistry without a license. According to news reports, Asemani’s former patients filed multiple civil suits against him for botched dental procedures that ranged from removing three good teeth to a root canal bungled so badly that the patient bled for two weeks.

Salmassi divorced her husband in 2001 while he was imprisoned, court records show, but their son said she welcomed him back home when he was paroled. The reunion was tragically short-lived; in 2005, when Kayvon was 9 years old, he was awakened at around 3 a.m. by his father loudly berating his mother.

"He had tape-recorded her telephone conversations. He played them back to her and smacked her with the tape recorder. Then he took my mother into the bathroom. My brother Arman was 12, and he tried to stand in my father’s path, but my father pushed him out of the way. What he did in the bathroom, nobody really knows, but we think he choked her."

Ghafour Asemani ordered his children to get into the car, drove them to Virginia, and left them with relatives. "I’ll be back," Kayvon Asemani remembers his father saying. "I’m going to grab breakfast." Instead, he drove to a police station and confessed. Investigators found Salmassi lying barely alive on her bathroom floor.

The crime ignited what Kayvon later described as "a family feud about who was going to take care of the kids." For the second time in a matter of weeks, Asemani said, the children were abandoned. Relatives arranged a play date in Baltimore at the home of one of Arman’s friends. They dropped the youngsters off and never returned.

For a time, the three lived with their 24-year-old cousin in a one-bedroom apartment in Ellicott City, who worked three jobs and applied for food stamps to make ends meet. The alternative that Kayvon Asemani imagines is even more grim. "It was that or we would have been split up and sent to orphanages," he said.

The Bulgarinos knew that the children’s living situation with their cousin wasn’t tenable long-term. The couple began making plans to take the three youngsters into their home, when Peter Bulgarino had a brainstorm — he himself had lived and studied for several years at the Milton Hershey School, and it had turned his life around. He thought it might have the same potential for the Asemani children. When the family agreed, he worked to get them admitted.

Bulgarino has remained in their lives ever as a mentor and friend. "They’re basically part of my extended family," he said. "Every Father’s Day I get a call from them saying, ‘You saved our lives. We wouldn’t have been where we are today without you.’"

Adam Grant, a professor of psychology and management at Wharton, was struck by Kayvon Asemani‘s self-deprecating humor. When Asemani admitted his own mistakes in front of his classmates, Grant said, other students followed his lead and opened up about their own shortcomings, resulting in the candid and in-depth classroom discussions that teachers live for.

So when Grant co-authored a book on overcoming adversity with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, he told Sandberg about his star pupil. She included an interview with Asemani in "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy."

Sandberg notes that helping children identify strengths is critical after traumatic events and credits Asemani’s mother with having instilled in her children the inner fortitude that allowed them to persevere. The book quotes Kayvon as saying, "Although I lost my mother, I never lost her faith in me."