Greater Lowell’s 25 most fascinating people of 2007


Szifra is profiled by the Lowell Sun

By Rita Savard

December 30, 2007

We’ve watched them, learned from them, been inspired by them. In our own backyards, they caught our attention and taught us to go after dreams.

Movers, shakers and innovators. They’re Greater Lowell’s most fascinating people of 2007, as determined by The Sun’s staff.

1. James Gallotto — Gallotto coached Tewksbury Youth Football for well over a decade, teaching more than just playing the game.

On July 11, Gallotto, a boilermaker and welder, suffered second- and third-degree burns to 80 percent of his body in an industrial accident. When word spread, the whole town seemed to descend on his Boston hospital room, bringing home-cooked meals every day.

“It was like a family member getting hurt,” said Tewksbury Memorial High School varsity football coach, Brian Aylward.

Gallotto, 46, has undergone several operations to place skin grafts on his body. The coach with “the heart of a lion” finished out the football season by volunteering to verbally coach the High School football team — offering up a real-life lesson in strength, determination and love.

2. Suzanne Norton — The day Norton was born in El Salvador, her mother Maria heard bullets flying overhead.

Her father, Valentin, remembers seeing bodies stacked against house walls. He narrowly escaped death himself when a bomb ripped through a group of his friends. But Norton, who grew up in Wilmington with her adoptive parents, knew nothing of her violent past until 25 years later. In 2006, Norton discovered that she was among thousands of children who “disappeared” during the 12-year civil war in El Salvador. Many of them were separated from their families by military officials eyeing lucrative international adoptions.

Norton hired investigators and this past April, the 26-year-old was reunited with her birth parents, some of her eight siblings and 26 nieces and nephews.

Norton is now working with other Salvadoran war children in Massachusetts to start a nonprofit organization that will help reunite more families.

3, 4. Charles Towers and Tom Parrish — From Lowell’s East Merrimack Street to Manhattan’s East 59th Street, Charles Tower and Tom Parrish helped propel the Merrimack Repertory Theater into the national spotlight in 2007.

For the first time in its 29-year-history, Lowell’s professional theater company raised the curtains in front of New York audiences. The opus that put MRT on the map, Secret Order by Bob Clyman and directed by Towers, was hailed by critics as a thought-provoking medical thriller.

MRT artistic director Towers and executive director Parrish reported sold-out shows when MRT’s name made its debut in lights outside the stylish 59E59 Theaters in November. This star-team also worked tirelessly to nurture corporate sponsorships and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep productions rolling this year, making the MRT Lowell’s little theater that could.

5. Micky Ward — Even in his retirement, “Irish” Micky Ward’s rise from the rough-and-tumble streets of Lowell to his thrilling trilogy of bouts with Aturo Gatti has fans captivated.

In 2007, Mark Wahlberg signed on to play Ward in a movie about the fighter’s rise to fame, telling morning TV co-hosts Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, “This is something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Bob Halloran, a journalist at WCVB-TV Channel 5 in Boston, wrote the book Irish Thunder: The Hard Life & Times of Micky Ward. And, if that wasn’t enough, Ward’s road-racing team, Team Micky Ward Charities, raised thousands to help families pay for medical expenses and get through hard times of their own.

He continues to train young boxers for the Golden Gloves and promote charity fundraisers.

6. Brian Hart — Hart was watching CNN when he saw a car bomb explode in the face of a U.S. soldier.

“That was the last straw,” said Hart, whose 20-year-old son, Army Pfc. John D. Hart, was killed in an ambush outside Kirkuk, Iraq, on Oct. 18, 2003.

The next day, Hart started buying parts and the LandShark was born — a 250-pound robot able to deactivate booby traps, remotely detonate a bomb and tow an 11,000-pound vehicle short distances.

In May, the Tyngsboro-based Black-i Robotics Inc. which Hart co-founded, unveiled LandShark at the RoboBusiness show in Boston. The difference between his creation and robots developed by defense contractors like iRobot and Foster-Miller is that the LandShark was specifically designed for the Iraq war, Hart said.

Since his son was killed, Hart and his wife, Alma, have vehemently lobbied Congress to give troops more body armor and life-saving devices.

7. Szifra Birke — Money can be a lightning rod for emotions. That’s where Szifra Birke comes in.

A licensed psychotherapist, Birke, 57, has become a pioneer as a wealth counselor or, as she prefers, “financial behavior specialist.”

“You’ve probably heard those stories of Lottery winners going broke after just a few years,” she has said about what can happen when people are unable to harness their initial emotions.

She was recently put on retainer by the Lexington Wealth management firm, helping staff members and clients with the emotions involved in the accumulation or sudden acquisition of large sums of money.

8. Niki Tsongas — She helped make 2007 the year of the woman in American politics. The Lowell Democrat made history Oct. 16 when she became the first woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts’ 5th District since Edith Nourse Rogers, also of Lowell, who died in office in 1960. Her victory over Republican Jim Ogonowski also made her the first woman elected to federal office from the state since former U.S. Rep. Margaret Heckler, a Republican who lost her seat in 1982 to U.S. Rep. Barney Frank.

During her victory speech, a beaming Tsongas told supporters, “There’s no better way that I can think to start my service in Washington than as the first woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts in 25 years.”

9. Patrick Murphy — He knew how to make an impression. Delivering Kennedy-style speeches in a tony Harvard accent, Patrick Murphy’s campaign for Congress was less about winning than it was about being heard.

Unconventional from the start, the 25-year-old from Lowell eschewed political contributions and instead asked supporters to donate money to one of six charities he listed on his Web site. Running on the strength of his ideas, like the possibility of a universal single-payer health-care system, Murphy opted to take public transportation over driving a gas-guzzling SUV, and used only the maximum individual contribution of $4,600 that he contributed himself to his campaign.

Although he may have received only 2 percent of the vote (2,170 votes), Murphy got people to take notice.

10. Tyler Lagasse — Finding athletes worthy of the label “role model” seems harder than advanced calculus these days. But then there’s Tyler Lagasse.

The 20-year-old Tyngsboro resident with autism is as extraordinary on the golf course as he is off it. Lagasse brought home the gold this year during the Special Olympics New England Invitational Golf Tournament in Farmington, Conn. He shot an 82 over 18 holes in his first time playing the course.

Lagasse was also hand-picked to become part of the Global Messenger program for Special Olympics, spreading the word about his experiences in the programs and events.

11. Nick Kefaleas — In 1964, the Beatles took America by storm, and also wreaked some havoc Nick Kefaleas’ Lowell barber shop.

Kefaleas’ scissors got a rest as teenagers fought with their parents to sprout moptop hairdos.

Then, the Beatles broke up. But Kefaleas, 75, is still cutting hair at his two-chair barber shop on 569 Market St., in Lowell’s Acre neighborhood. This year he celebrated 50 years in business.

Kefaleas’ shop remains a timeless fixture in Lowell, with Sinatra playing on the boombox, $9 haircuts and service with a smile.

12, 13, 14. — The McDonough Family — The chilling story is every family’s worst nightmare. But when a knife-wielding attacker invaded their home in the middle of the night, Kevin, Jeannie and Shea McDonough showed what real heroes are made of.

Because of the Chelmsford family’s act of courage, suspected serial killer Adam Leroy Lane was apprehended by police and now resides behind bars.

On July 30, Lane, a trucker from North Carolina, parked his rig at a rest area on Interstate 495 and pulled on a black face mask and a tool belt stocked with knives, choke wire and a martial arts throwing star. He then broke into the McDonoughs’ home and held a blade to a sleeping Shea McDonough’s throat. Hearing their daughter’s cries, Kevin and Jeannie McDonough ran into the room and fought off Lane until police arrived. Shea, then 15, called 911, managing to keep her cool in a terrifying situation.

“They refused to be victimized in their own home,” said Chelmsford Police Chief Jim Murphy. “By their heroic and valiant efforts, our Chelmsford family not only saved themselves from harm’s way, but they also brought some closure and comfort to other families suffering.”

15. Patty Stella — She took a vacant Market Street retail space and transformed it into a sleek new Mediterranean restaurant with paella to die for.

After 20 years in the restaurant industry, chef Patty Stella is finally making up her own rules and adding yet another reason for diners to flock to downtown Lowell.

The 38-year-old Tewksbury resident, who worked at La Boniche and the Andover Inn, planted Centro in a former flower shop that now casts a metropolitan-by-way-of-Miami feel. Despite starts and stops, Stella never strayed from her dream, catering to the new wave of downtown denizens — condo dwellers who want ambiance with their ahi tuna.

16. Kenjulian Berroa — Good Samaritans can seem hard to come by in today’s hectic world. So who could forget Berroa, whose random act of kindness helped save a woman’s life?

On a freezing February afternoon, Chelmsford resident Shirley Parent slipped in her driveway and broke her leg in two places. Parent was unable to move, her husband was asleep inside the house and cars were zooming past her Riverneck Road home.

At first, Berroa thought the 71-year-old woman was resting on a small stool in the sun. But windy, below-zero temperatures prompted him to turn around. He found Parent in extreme pain and shivering. Because of her “angel,” Parent said she is still here today.

17. Dodie Hughes — Turning pain into positive action, Hughes has devoted her life to warn others against driving under the influence.

Hughes’ 19-year-old daughter, Betsie, was killed in a horrific crash nine years ago, when drunken driver Irving Chapman slammed his dump truck into three cars on Route 119 in Groton. Betsie’s boyfriend and high-school sweetheart, Sean Wellington
of Pepperell, was also killed.

Since her daughter’s death, Hughes has reached out to teens and partnered up with organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Finding Options for Change, Understanding & Safety. Hughes said she talks about her daughter’s death to prevent other mothers from going through what she endured.

18. Luis Pedroso — His impressions can be found all over New England.

On the scholarships he’s donated to graduating Lowell High School students of Portuguese descent, to the $300,000 he gave to the Portuguese Studies program at UMass Dartmouth — the largest private donation the department has ever seen.

Pedroso, whose farmer father moved his family from Portugal to America in 1969, received one of his homeland’s highest honors this year: The prestigious Order of Prince Henry the Navigator medal. The award recognizes Pedroso’s work to foster an understanding of Portugese culture in his community.

“It’s really important for all of us to get involved and do all we can to add to this diverse culture we call America,” Pedroso has said.

19. Duey Kol — At 5 feet 1 inch tall, Duey Kol, seems more inclined for the delicate and complicated traditional Cambodian dances she performed as a young girl.

But in October, the petite 26-year-old found herself shooting an M-16 semi-automatic rifle. Flying in a helicopter with rangers from the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California, Kol helped in the search for illegal marijuana plantations.

A special-events assistant for the Lowell National Historical Park, Kol is the only native speaker of Khmer in the entire U.S. National Park System. She was pulled in by California rangers to serve as a translator.

20. Andy Jacobson — Serving coffee with a conscience. It’s become a trademark for Jacobson, owner of Brew’d Awakenings Coffeehaus on Market Street in Lowell.

Jacobson sells only Equal Exchange coffee, which puts more money into the pockets of impoverished farmers around the world, instead of the middle man. It might be a little more pricey for the consumer, but fair trade means the farmers who grow the coffee — or cocoa, fruit, tea, rice or sugar — get an equitable share of the dollars you spend.

Jacobson also supports local farms by buying fresh produce and products for items on his menu.

21. Dr. Susan Black — At an age when many are planning for a more comfortable lifestyle, Black gave up her Lowell practice of 35 years and her creature comforts to move to Johannesburg, South Africa — a city plagued by crime and AIDS.

In the hard world where Black now lives, 200 children die every day and 7,000 babies are buried each month.

Black, 65, was honored with the 2007 Humanitarian Award from the American Academy of Family Physicians. The award recognizes Black’s work at Nikosi’s Haven, a long-term residence for HIV-infected mothers and children.

As a front-line soldier in the war against AIDS, Black can see hope. And with it, maybe someday, victory.

22. Michael Kuenzler — Fundraising gets his blood pumping. That’s why Kuenzler was tapped by Saints Medical Center this year as the new vice president of development and president of the Saints Foundation.

The former Lowell police officer co-chaired the first Merrimack Valley Heart Walk with Saints, raising more than $200,000 for heart disease research, education and awareness. The UMass Lowell alumnus also co-chaired the revival of season-ticket sales for River Hawk college hockey earlier this year.

23. Julie Chen — The technology touches all industries ranging from new kinds of toothpaste to pinpointing explosives. It’s called nanotech, and if the industry had a queen, it very well might be UMass Lowell’s Chen.

Nanotechnology — the science of building new materials atom by atom — is expected to drive economic development and create hundreds of new jobs throughout Greater Lowell. Chen and 14 other researchers landed more than $2.7 million in grants this year from the National Science Foundation. The money will expand UMass Lowell’s research, while also supporting an after-school program for Lowell middle schools.

24. Bianca de la Garza — She’s the news anchor next door. Bianca de la Garza has been a guest in local living rooms for years, as residents tune into the blue-eyed blonde for the latest scoop. A former Fox newscaster now working at WCVB Channel 5, de la Garza and her anchorman husband, David Wade, have been turning heads around town this year since the couple purchased their home in Tewksbury.

25. Roy Nagy — He’s the man who proved to Billerica that if you never give up, dreams can become reality.

Nagy, director of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Billerica, spearheaded a campaign to raise $1.2 million to erect a much-needed new building. In 2007, Nangy’s efforts paid off as fundraising hit the mark, green-lighting the $3.5 million construction project that will create a brand new 8,500-square-foot gymnasium and an entirely new building interior.

It’s a long-awaited dream come true, said Nangy, especially since the Billerica club has the largest aquatics program in the region, serving swimmers 6 months to more than 80 years of age.

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