John Ogonowski ’72, ’03 (H) understood the power of a seed.
History remembers Ogonowski as the senior captain of American Airlines Flight 11. Fifteen years ago, he became one of the first casualties of 9/11 after terrorists hijacked his Boston-to-Los Angeles flight and flew the plane into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
Yet those who knew Ogonowski best remember him as a farmer—a young boy who grew up on a hundred-acre farm in Dracut, land his family has been farming since they emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s.
They remember the smart and capable kid who could drive a tractor by age 7. The youth so hardworking and good-natured that other farmers lined up to hire him. The gifted engineering student who came home on weekends to get the hay in. The skilled captain who flew Air Force transport planes in Vietnam and transcontinental flights for American Airlines, but who couldn’t wait to get home to Dracut so that he could change into his work clothes, climb on his tractor and get back to work.
“A lot of people didn’t even realize John was a pilot,” says his mother, Theresa. “They thought he was a full-time farmer.”
And no wonder. In addition to running the 150-acre farm where he lived with his wife, Peggy, and their three daughters, Ogonowski worked with New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, a nonprofit that places Cambodian refugees and other recent immigrants on local farms where they can raise their own commercial crops. He also helped found the Dracut Land Trust, to preserve farmland from commercial development.
“He did all this because he loved it,” says his younger sister, Carol. “For John, farming was one big science-fair experiment. Every year he would try something new. He was always evolving, always learning.”
Trong Ngo ’17 understands the power of learning. From an early age, Ngo knew education was his ladder to a better future. Both his parents emigrated from Vietnam, eventually settling in Worcester, where Ngo grew up with his four brothers and sisters. His mother, the daughter of a U.S. serviceman, wasn’t able to finish school. “She always stressed how important education is, so that you can have more opportunities,” Ngo says. “One of my biggest motivations is to make her proud.”
A gifted math student, Ngo enrolled at Worcester Technical High School, where he earned a certificate in computer-aided drafting and design along with his diploma. After a year at Quinsigamond Community College, he transferred to UMass Lowell to study mechanical engineering.
Like Ogonowski before him, he enrolled in the Air Force ROTC, Detachment 345. With courses in aerospace studies, leadership labs, a four-week field training unit and two years of professional officer coursework, “ROTC is almost like a second major,” Ngo says. “It’s demanding, but I’ve learned so much. And I’ve met people who I think will be friends for life.”
Next May, Ngo will become the first member of his family to graduate from college. After receiving his commission as a second lieutenant, he hopes to fly remotely piloted aircraft or work as an Air Force engineer. He has another goal, as well.
“I’ve never met my American grandfather,” Ngo says. “I’m so curious about him and his stories of Vietnam. I hope we’ll meet some day, and that I can show him I’ve become an officer.”
The Ogonowski family understands that learning can be the most special seed of all.
Even as they struggled with his loss, they were determined the qualities that made John special would somehow survive him.
With help from then-Congressman Marty Meehan ’78, who secured more than $600,000 in federal funding, the Ogonowskis and other local conservationists were able to purchase 33 acres of farmland slated for development as a “living memorial” to Dracut’s best-known farmer.
John’s father, Alexander, chose a second “living memorial”: an endowed scholarship at UMass Lowell, where John and his younger brothers, Jim ’79 and Joe ’85, received their degrees.
A World War II veteran who served with the Army Air Corps, Alexander was a strong believer in service to country, says Theresa, and three of his five children followed him into the Air Force.
At his direction, the John Ogonowski Memorial Scholarship is awarded annually to top junior ROTC cadets who exemplify the Air Force’s core values: “integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do"—qualities that were the pillars of John’s life and accomplishments.
If 9/11 has changed the world in ways that John Ogonowski could not imagine, his scholarship is changing lives in ways he would surely recognize. Since 2002, more than 20 UMass Lowell students have been awarded the scholarship—including Trong Ngo.
“It’s such an honor,” says Ngo. “It pushes me to do my best work, and reminds me not to give up.”
Growing up in a post-9/11 world has fueled his patriotism, he says, “and my desire to be part of something larger than myself. I want to help keep the world as peaceful as possible.”