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It is one of those stories that though often told can never be told enough. On April 14, 1968, a world, nation and the community of New London confronted despair. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had used love, non-violence and resolute persistence to confront the evil of segregation, was dead from an assassin's bullet.
Dr. William DeHomer Waller, the first African-American professor of chemistry at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and his wife, Eunice Waller, an elementary school teacher, realizing it was now up to others to carry the torch Dr. King had passed, sought for something good to come from something so awful.
With that in mind the couple funded a $100 scholarship for a local African-American student in the memory of Dr. King. In 2009 the 100th recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund crossed the stage at the annual fundraising dinner. And each year several students continue to receive scholarships of up to $20,000 for their academic achievements and contributions to the community.
This is the life that Eunice Waller led, a life that touched so many others. Mrs. Waller died Friday. She is on her trip to the mountaintop, a reunification with her late husband and probably a thank you from Dr. King
"Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it."
- Martin Luther King Jr.
If Mrs. Waller's contribution was getting the MLK scholarship fund started, that would have been noteworthy enough. But since arriving in New London with her husband in 1961, this daughter of Lillington, N.C., never stopped contributing to her adopted city of New London.
Long active in the city's dominant Democratic Party, she served variously on the Board of Education, the City Council - including a stint as mayor - and various boards and commissions. Those who worked with her say Mrs. Waller was always direct, but never mean, willing to listen to others, but firm when she concluded the position she was taking was the right one.
Mrs. Waller was also active in civic and charitable organizations, a contributing member of the NAACP and the longtime state convener of the New London County Section of the National Council of Negro Women. And then there are the many people she helped on an individual basis.
"How do you introduce someone who has done so much, for so many, for so long?" said Ulysses B. Hammond, president of the MLK Scholarship Trust Fund, when introducing Mrs. Waller at a 2007 event.
And how do you properly memorialize such a person?
"Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile."
- Albert Einstein
Then there are the hundreds of lives Mrs. Waller touched as a Waterford school teacher. Throughout her life, former students, now grown, would come up to the educator to thank her and reflect on the influence she had. Mrs. Waller would never cease to delight in these meetings, flashing that warm smile and providing an affectionate hug.
Gifted with a wonderful sense of humor and the ability to make people feel instantly comfortable, she was a delight.
New London and southeastern Connecticut will miss her and should be ever grateful for the gifts she gave so many.
"Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened."
- Dr. Seuss