Originally published
in The Stony Brook Bulletin
January 2012


In late April 2012, a small miracle bloomed in the life of our family.

We have lived on the campus of The Stony Brook School since 2010, when we moved from Philadelphia after my husband Kris accepted the position of humanities teacher and head football coach. In these two short years, we have come to embrace life at SBS, to the point where it’s almost hard to imagine not living on the campus of a boarding school, continuously surrounded by some 300+ lively teenagers. We have three young children who are equally as enamored with our new life.

Last spring, when it came time to break ground on Kanas Commons, and the Development Office published a list of remaining naming opportunities, we began to consider how we might become involved.

Kris and I are graduates of the University of Pennsylvania, and we both lived for several years in a dormitory named after the sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, and Penn scholar W. E. B. DuBois. As students of color, who faced unique challenges, triumphs, and frustrations on an Ivy League campus, we found living in a dorm that carried the name of an African-American man to be extraordinarily meaningful. Thus the idea took shape to make a family contribution to the Kanas Commons campaign in honor of a prominent African-American member of the SBS community.

But who would it be? Kris and I quickly decided that we would like to determine the identity of the first African-American student to attend The Stony Brook School, and to give our gift in his honor.

After several weeks of scouring Res Gestae yearbooks, student records and School publications, we concluded that Laurence Foster ’57 was this first student. We learned with sadness that he had passed away in 1975, and that his parents, too, were no longer with us.

We did not have any information on file about other family members, but some Googling quickly led to information about Laurence Foster’s father, of the same name. When Laurence Jr. was a senior at SBS, his father was a prominent faculty member at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. In his obituary, as printed in a 1969 issue of The Afro American, I discovered two amazing facts: first, that Laurence Sr. had earned his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania (he was the first African-American student to earn that degree from Penn!), and second, that Laurence Jr. had a sister, named Yvonne.

Naturally, I was eager to discover more about Yvonne and her current whereabouts. Not sure where to turn first, I thought to call Sam Hughes, an editor at The Pennsylvania Gazette (the University of Pennsylvania’s alumni magazine, to which I am a frequent contributor). As Laurence Jr.’s father was a Penn graduate, I thought Sam might have ideas as to the best way to track down a file or other facts about his family. This was to be a phone call I would never forget. Approximately ten minutes into my rambling explanation, Sam asked me to repeat the name I kept mentioning. “Laurence Foster,” I said. He asked, “Is he, by chance, of any relation to Yvonne Foster Southerland?”

Thus I learned that Yvonne, too, is a Penn alumna. In fact, she had emailed Sam just a few weeks earlier to let him know that she had recently written a book, entitled Legacy: Seven Generations of a Family, and to suggest that it be mentioned in an upcoming issue of the Gazette. To my speechlessness, Sam replied, “I wouldn’t normally do this, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if I passed along her email address.”

On a warm spring evening in early May, Yvonne and her daughter Alexis welcomed Kris and me into their Brooklyn brownstone for an unforgettable conversation and a short walk to dinner at a nearby restaurant. It was hard to leave; swimming as we were among waves of serendipity and Christian kindness, we suddenly felt like family.

The sad conclusion to Laurence Jr.’s story was that he took his own life after a long and difficult battle with schizophrenia, a disease he was diagnosed with shortly after his sophomore year at Brown University. How could I have known that this would hit so close to home? The unfortunate reality of suicide has clipped several branches of my family tree. My own father is estranged from me due to his struggle with mental illness, and many of my family members and friends daily and bravely confront their own mental health diagnoses.

Yvonne and I held back tears as we sensed with great certainty that God had brought the two of us together. We toasted at dinner that night to Larry. All we could do was raise our glasses and smile.

Laurence Foster ’57
August 22, 1940 —
September 1, 1975