Community mourns beloved CUNY dean Derrick Griffith, killed in Amtrak crash

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NEW YORK (PIX11) -- Every death from the Philadelphia train derailment is tragic.  However, one of the people who lost his life, Dr. Derrick Griffith, was remembered on Thursday by hundreds of people whose lives he affected at two different schools.  At Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, there was a heavily attended candlelight vigil, and at CUNY Prep High School in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx, a seemingly endless line of current and former students came to pay respects to their former principal and light candles at a makeshift memorial.

"I was in that life, gangs, drugs, you know, just constantly in the streets," said Jared Jackson, a former CUNY Prep student, regarding how he ended up going to the unconventional school founded in part by Griffith.  He said that he had been "kicked out of my school because of lack of attendance."  Dr. Griffith turned his life around, Jackson said.

"One time I was just in front of the school crying, because I was just so devastated with my family, I didn't want to be there anymore," said Krystle Cavan, another CUNY Prep alumna who'd arrived to pay respects.  She said that Griffith literally picked her up, "and he sat me down in his office, and he spoke to me and he told me, 'Krystle, everything will get better."

"He was the only person at the time that I started here, who believed in me," said another former student, Christopher Rodriguez.

They were among the many reminiscing about Griffith at the high school that's run in conjunction with the City University of New York, or CUNY.

It was the brainchild of John Mogulescu, senior dean of CUNY.  He and a colleague interviewed candidates for the principal's position at the school they were creating 12 years ago, when Griffith walked into the room.

"In two minutes, I knew we had our candidate," Mogulescu told PIX11 News in an interview.  "He was someone who was exuberant, smart, compassionate, understood young people."

"I have been in the CUNY system for over forty years," he continued, regarding Griffith. "He is the single most talented educator of young people that I have ever had the privilege of working with."

Griffith was so well loved at CUNY Prep, which he ended up playing a key role in shaping and making work, that a staff member skilled in multi-media made a half hour film documenting Griffith's life there.

The film was a gift to Griffith after he resigned from CUNY Prep in 2010 to become dean of students at Medgar Evers College.  Titled Farewell Film, the video tribute to Griffith is now, sadly, even more appropriate than when it was made.

The film shows various ways in which Griffith identifies with his students, even though he was an administrator with a graduate degree, and his students were all admitted because they had challenges completing high school.

"I grew up in the projects," he said in one clip, addressing students, "had a drug addicted mom for all of my life."

Even though he burnished a reputation as an able and effective administrator, Griffith insisted on teaching a course himself every semester.

Also, throughout the film are clips of him encouraging, admonishing and cheering on students to graduate and to go on to college.

It was clear, outside of the school on Thursday, that his message was received loud and clear.

"I went to college," said Cavan, his former student, "I'm achieving what I want to achieve because of him."

"He changed my life for the better," said Samantha Antonetti, another former student at CUNY Prep. "I'm working on Wall Street right now, I'm working in an advertising company."

"I wouldn't have been able to graduate from this technical school that I went to," said Jared Jackson, another former student.  "And lo and behold here comes Griff, no longer working in CUNY Prep, but now the director of his entire own program, and he put me onto his corporate internship, and I was able to graduate."

A whole section of the tribute film is devoted to the fact that Griffith would often say "Bless your heart" to students, faculty and staff.

On Thursday, his former students said the phrase to one another in tribute to their mentor and leader who had lost his life in such a tragic way at such a young age. He was 42.

"Bless your heart!" A handful of alumni shouted outside of the school entrance.  "Love you, Griff," one added.

Derrick Griffith, PhD had just completed all of the requirements for his doctoral degree at the beginning of May.  He was supposed to be awarded a Doctor of Letters diploma at a commencement ceremony at CUNY next week.  It will now be conferred posthumously.

Dr. Griffith is survived by his mother, Carlea Griffith, and his son Darryus.   They are now making arrangements for his memorial service and funeral.