By Ben Joravsky
Eugenia Cobbinah was going to be a nurse. She talked about it all the time. She had this notion that if she worked hard and stayed positive, she'd make out OK.
It didn't work out that way. In the spring of 1996, just a few days before her high school graduation and two months before she was to enroll at the University of Illinois at Chicago's nursing school, Cobbinah was killed, the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting on the south side.
Drive-by murders happen all too often. But Cobbinah's friends and former teachers are working to make sure that she's never forgotten. "In some ways it's like years and years and years have gone, and in some ways it's like no time's passed," says Tiffany Neal, a classmate of Cobbinah's at Lindblom High School. "I'll never forget her. In my mind, Eugenia will never be gone. We all want her memory to last forever."
Cobbinah and most of her high school friends met in the fall of 1992, when they were jittery freshmen at Lindblom, a magnet school that draws students from all over the south side. Few of them had attended the same grammar schools, so they spent their first few days seeking friendly faces. "Eugenia was one of the friendliest kids in the school--she was always smiling, always upbeat, always ready to help you with whatever you needed," says Lillian Griggs, another classmate.
Neal says, "Her strength was her ability to deal with the day-to-day stuff--you just would not see that girl get down. And she was funny--I swear she could have been a comedian. She used to make this one Spanish teacher, Mrs. Santayo, so mad. I mean, it was nothing serious. It was our last class of the day, senior year. Eugenia would be talking, and Mrs. Santayo would say, 'Senorita Cobbinah, stop it.' We knew she loved Eugenia. She'd walk up to her at the end of the class and hug her and say something like, 'Oh, Eugenia.'"
According to her friends, Cobbinah was both extraordinary and down-to-earth. She liked to listen to R & B, and she loved to watch the Bulls. ("Scottie Pippen was her favorite--she loved Scottie," says Kellie Lanier, a close friend.) She was a member of the National Honor Society and the Peer Leaders, a group of upperclassmen who tutor underclassmen. She worked as a cashier at the Jewel on 87th and helped her mother take care of her father, who died of cancer during her senior year. Her nickname was Boo.
"I had her for honors literature," says Richard Lufrano, a former Lindblom English teacher. "On January 2, 1996, I had the students write a letter to themselves, recording the short-term goals they hoped to accomplish in the six months before graduation. I sealed the letters in envelopes and promised to return them on graduation day. Eugenia was so ambitious and diligent--I wondered what her goals would be."
For the most part, she hung with a crowd of equally bright and ambitious girls--Neal, Lanier, Griggs, Simone Kelly, and Shalonda Parker--who had their own college plans. "We did a lot of stuff together, like prom," says Neal. "That was fun. We had dates, but we did a lot of girl talking in the ladies' room. We'd go to the bathroom and look in the mirror and take pictures and laugh and talk. Then we'd go back out and sit with our dates. Then go back to the ladies' room. I don't know what the guys were doing, 'cause we were in the bathroom having fun."
Their final days at Lindblom were a bittersweet mix of expectation and nostalgia. "You know how it is at the end of high school," says Lanier. "You want to go, but you want to stay. You want to move on, but you want to hold on to those days.
"A week before graduation I was getting on the bus at the end of the day and I saw Eugenia standing by the school. I don't know--it was something strange--but something told me to get off that bus. I mean, I had my foot on the stairs heading on up, and I just turned around and got off. I joined her and we walked back into the school. We were talking--I don't know about what, probably graduation. We were so excited about graduating. Then I got back on the bus, and as it pulled away I looked out the window and I saw Eugenia. I'm so glad I got off that bus. I'm so glad I walked with her back into the school one last time."
Two days later, on Sunday, June 2, at about 7 PM, Cobbinah left her home on the 1500 block of East 67th Place to go to the store. According to police, a car raced by. Shots were fired. The bullets hit her in the chest. She died on the sidewalk.
"I was home on Monday morning, getting ready for school, and I got a phone call from a friend who said she heard it on the Fox TV news that Boo was killed," says Neal. "I said, 'Oh, Fox, they always get things wrong.' I was in a state of denial--I just didn't want to believe it. Then I got to school, and I saw it on everybody's face. Everyone was crying."
"I remember coming into school that day and seeing a student of mine crying in the stairwell," says Lufrano. "She was supposed to make a presentation in my class that morning. I thought she was crying over the presentation. I sat next to her and said, 'If you really don't want to do your presentation, you can postpone it.' She said, 'No, last night Eugenia was killed.' I was angry at myself for thinking that it had to do with the presentation, which in hindsight meant nothing. I was in shock. I was in pain. I couldn't believe the life of such a lovely girl could be wasted."
A few days later Lufrano opened the envelope that contained Eugenia's handwritten goals. Among her 11 goals--along with "study more," "act my age," "save more money," and "try to start minding my own business"--was an eerie one: "Make the last few months I have left the best months of my life."
"She was referring to the last few months of high school, but it's haunting that she would write that, almost like she knew," says Lufrano.
After graduation Neal, Kelly, Parker, Lanier, and Griggs moved on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where they discovered that college is much tougher than high school. But so far all of them plan to graduate on time. "I try not to stay up too late," says Griggs, a premed student. "I try to get my proper rest--I'm not one of those kids who can just stay up all night and get up early in the morning. I want to work with children, to be a pediatrician. That's been my dream since I don't know when. I realize how lucky I've been in so many ways. I think I'll make it."
Like her other friends, Griggs believes Cobbinah would have flourished in college. "She'd have made her dreams come true," says Lanier. "She had so much perseverance--she was always studying, always working. I have a picture of her on my wall. I see her and she's a part of this college experience. We were like the three musketeers in high school--me and Eugenia and Simone [Kelly]. I miss her. I miss her all the time."
According to police, Cobbinah was one of 370 people murdered on the south side in 1996. A suspect was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, but on March 10, 1997, he was acquitted in a bench trial.
"These problems are so widespread--it's so senseless," says Neal. "Why Eugenia should have to die? Why any people should die in drive-bys? It's beyond our comprehension."
A few weeks after Eugenia's funeral Lufrano decided to set up a scholarship in her name. "The scholarship will provide financial assistance to a Lindblom High student interested in attending the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Nursing, which of course is where Eugenia was planning to go," he says. "I decided it was the right thing to do, since Eugenia was always talking about helping people. I met with Anne Smart, who's director of placement for the college, and she was very supportive. We need to raise $10,000 to achieve an endowed status. That means the funds raised in Eugenia's name become part of UIC's much larger pool of endowments. Every year the interest goes out for scholarships. So far I've raised $2,500. I need to raise at least $7,500 more."
On Sunday, December 27, Lufrano, a former basketball player at Lane Tech, will sponsor the first of what he hopes will become an annual Eugenia M. Cobbinah Hoops Challenge, a basketball tournament at the Windy City Fieldhouse, 2367 W. Logan. The games will run from 10 AM to 1 PM. It costs $25 to play, and all the money will go to the scholarship fund. (For more information, call Lufrano at 312-431-9644 or visit the fund's Web site: www.uic.edu/orgs/lindblom/
"We have a student already selected for the first scholarship," says Lufrano. "Her name's Kortni Rogers, and she's a junior. So she would be going to UIC in two years. She's a great kid. Hardworking and caring. Just like Eugenia." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Eugenia Cobbinah's uncredited (school?) photo; Lillian Griggs, Cobbinah, Shalonda Parker, Latoya Trotter uncredited photo.