Two boys who loved gardening are remembered

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Anthony Chen, 10, loved treehouses. After the boy’s death, his classmates worked together on drawings they placed into his memory box. This one shows a colorful treehouse the students labeled “Anthony’s Place.” 

GUILDERLAND — “I needed to do something, to move on in a positive way,” said Guilderland Elementary School teacher Rory Davis.

He was talking about why he started the Anthony and Eddy Chen Memorial Scholarship, which held a garage sale at the elementary school on Saturday to raise funds.

The scholarship for $500 is given each year to a graduating Guilderland High School senior going into any field of study related to the environment, Davis said.

This will be the third year the scholarship is given in memory of two little boys who loved gardening.

Garden Club was the last activity Anthony and Eddy Chen took part in at Guilderland Elementary School on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, said teachers Rory Davis and Lois McDonald.

“I put them on the late bus that day,” McDonald said.

“It makes me happy that Garden Club was one of his last —” said Davis of Anthony, his voice trailing off. “I know that sounds weird, but I’m glad that he had that,” he said.

Both boys and their mother and father, all immigrants from China, were found murdered in their home by a relative on Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 8, 2014. The still-unsolved case is Guilderland’s only quadruple homicide.

This awfulness just descended on our school,” McDonald said. “Everybody was confused, devastated. Like you’re in this bubble.”

Anthony, 10, joined the Garden Club when he was in third grade. The club was open at that time to children in grades 3 through 5, but Anthony advocated for his little brother, Eddy, then a kindergartner, and he joined his brother in the club the following year, McDonald said.

The older boy was “pretty shy” and a very hard worker in the garden, McDonald said. She divided the work into “committees” — “digging committee,” “raking committee,” etc. — and Anthony was so thorough that she always made him a committee leader. He was quiet, she said, but would show the other children what needed to be done.

“He had the command of the courtyard, and took every job purposefully and carefully,” she recalled of Anthony.

 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Lois McDonald, left, and Rory Davis, teachers at Guilderland Elementary School, have found ways to honor the memory of two boys who were brutally murdered three years ago in a case that remains unsolved. 

Eddy, she said, was sweet and earnest. Both boys loved digging in the dirt and being outside, McDonald said.

Both boys loved sunflowers in particular, she said; the club still plants them each year.

Anthony had an “amazing notebook he used to keep,” said Davis, filled with sketches of treehouses he had designed.

“I wish I had the notebook in my hands. It was a treasure,” Davis said.

Davis didn’t think Anthony had a treehouse at his Guilderland home. “He said he would like to have one.”

Davis did not know much about the boys’ parents. It was usually their father, Jin Feng Chen, who came to teacher-parent conferences, he said; he met their mother, Hai Yan Li, once or twice. Their father was soft-spoken and didn’t say much.

He worked at a local Chinese restaurant, Davis said, adding of the boys, “I think, for the most part, their lives were spent at the restaurant.”

 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Memory box: Anthony Chen’s fifth-grade classmates made a box that still sits in Rory Davis’s classroom. It features photos of Anthony and of the ceremony Davis and the students held, in which they tucked notes they had written into balloons that they released into the sky above the school. 

 

World upside-down   

Anthony had been in Davis’s fourth-grade class the previous year. As the 2014-15 year approached and the school found itself short one fifth-grade teacher, the principal asked fhe fourth-grade instructors if any of them wanted to teach fifth grade that year.

At first, no one did, Davis said.

But he’d had “a wonderful fourth-grade class that year,” he said, and told the principal that he would teach fifth grade for a year, if he could bring those same students with him.

So students who had already gotten to know one another — and to know Anthony — were still together and able to work through their feelings over the next year.

“I can’t imagine if the kids had all been scattered” throughout the other fifth-grade classes, Davis said. “Instead, we were all together, and able to go through these mixed emotions together.”

Anthony’s death turned his world upside-down, Davis said, “to the point where I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to return to school the next year.”

He had to at least finish out that year and “remain strong for the other 21 kids in my class,” he said.

Davis spoke openly about his feelings with the kids.

“I wear my heart on my sleeve,” he said. “My parents always taught me, ‘Your feelings are real, and are something to be expressed, not suppressed.”

Davis has always encouraged children to write about their feelings. One of his assignments is to write something about “strong feelings.” He tells the children that they can write about “good-heart feelings” or “bad-heart feelings.”

Children were horrified by the boys’ murders, Davis said. One child had to spend the rest of that year sleeping in his parents’ bed, he said.

Davis had to hide some of his own feelings from the students, to be able to reassure them.

“I wanted them to feel safe and secure. I told them they were safe and OK, and I said that, but in the back my mind, I thought, ‘Who knows, really?’” Davis said.

Many children said one of the hardest things about Anthony’s being gone was not being able to see his face. So they created a board with pictures of Anthony taken at different classroom events. They kept it up for a while, until it became more painful than comforting.

“Same thing with his desk,” Davis said. “What do you do with his desk?” he said.

They kept it in place for a while. “There came a day when we decided it was better to take that away,” Davis said.

Many students were sad that they had never gotten to say goodbye. They decided to write notes to Anthony.

“I asked them what they wanted to do with them,” Davis said. The children asked if they could put them inside balloons and release them.

They did, standing in a circle on the ball field in back of the school.

Soon after Anthony’s death, Davis bought journals for the class and placed them on a table, saying that each student could take one if he or she wanted; many did, he said. They could write in it or not, and share their writing with the class or not. “There were many occasions when they wanted to share,” he said.

Cold case

The case on the Chen murders is still open and remains the responsibility of the New York State Police, said Trooper Mark Cepiel, spokesman for the agency’s Troop G.

“From the get-go, we’ve made no secret that tips and leads from the public have been spartan at best,” Cepiel said.

The Major Crimes unit continues to investigate cold cases and currently has at least 30, Cepiel said; some involve helping other police departments with their cases, he said.

He said the oldest is from 1974, that of State University of New York at Cobleskill student Katherine Kolodziej, who was found murdered at age 17.

The agency is in the process of posting information about its cold cases on Tuesdays — known as “Cold Case Tuesdays” — on its Facebook page.

“Sometimes these generate leads,” Cepiel said.

Is he encouraged by the arrest last week in California of a suspect in a string of long-unsolved murders dating back 40 years?

“That is something that all law enforcement strives for,” Cepiel said.

Davis said, “That would be my only dream, that they would find the guy. And I would be sitting in that courtroom every day.

“There’s a lot in this world I don’t understand, but to take a child’s life, an innocent child’s life, makes no sense,” Davis said.

The family’s graves are in a cemetery in Queens. On the first anniversary of Anthony’s death, Davis traveled there to pay his respects. Since then he has gone instead on Anthony’s birthday, May 28, “because it’s more celebratory.”

 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Usable monument: Teacher Rory Davis, principal Allan Lockwood, and Eddy’s second-grade teacher, Tammie Mirabile, had the idea to create a monument for the Chen brothers, but didn’t want it to be just decorative. “We wanted something that would be used,” Davis explained. During recess, there’s never a time, he said, when there aren’t children climbing or sitting on these two boulders set into a bench-like shape. 

 

Memory box

Anthony’s fifth-grade class made a memory box that still sits in Davis’s room, three-and-a-half years later. The kids helped decorate the box with photos of Anthony and of their balloon release.

They worked in small groups on drawings that they placed inside.

The drawings were of treehouses.

One shows a treehouse beside a green hill with a playground at the top and a smiling figure that Davis said is meant to represent Anthony looking down. Next to him is Bailey, a therapy dog who spent a lot of time in Davis’s classroom and whom Anthony loved. Inside the treehouse is a pyramid of Legos — the building blocks were another of Anthony’s favorite things — labeled “Lego Tower of Terror.”

An orange flag waving alongside the treehouse reads “Anthony’s Place.”

Throughout the year, Davis said, he would find new things placed inside the box by students.

As an example, he pulled out a small blue velvet ring box. Someone had taped onto it a piece of paper, printed in block letters with the words “U will never be forgotten.”

Inside was a tiny photo of Anthony’s face, along with two sunflower seeds. 

More Guilderland News

  • Altamont Treasurer Catherine Hasbrouck told the board of trustees last year that water-and-sewer rates had to be raised so the village could collect another $100,000 per year for general operations and maintenance.

  • The Guilderland committee for police reform assembled arrest records according to race and found that a much higher percentage of Blacks than there are Black residents in town were charged. This is largely due to arrests of out-of-town suspects made at Crossgates Mall, according to Police Chief Daniel McNally. The public is encouraged to read the draft and respond.

  • All four elected village positions face no opposition in the March 16 Altamont election.

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