Slain Penn student Bernstein was 'raised to be an activist,' mom says

Blaze Bernstein with his parents, Gideon and Jeanne Bernstein, in California on New Year’s Eve just two days before his death.

Two years ago, when Jeanne Pepper Bernstein’s son said he wanted to embark on a grueling science curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania, it made her nervous. Blaze, the product of six years in a performing arts school in Santa Ana, Calif., had shown many academic interests, but this intense program had a reputation for weeding out students.

Yet Blaze found organic chemistry easy. All it entailed “was naming long strands of molecules,” she recalls him telling her.

By the beginning of his sophomore year, Blaze had dropped out of the science program. With medical school in his sights, he returned home in December. Eight days before the start of spring classes, he prepared dinner for his family — turkey with butternut squash soup — and then went out to meet a former schoolmate.

That night, Blaze disappeared. After a drone-assisted weeklong search across Southern California, authorities found his body in a shallow grave. He had been stabbed at least 20 times. Last week, the man he had gone to meet, Samuel Lincoln Woodward, was charged with his murder. Woodward is scheduled to be arraigned Feb. 2.

Much of the public attention to the case is about the killing and its lurid details: Blaze was openly gay, and a court affidavit referred to failed romantic overtures between the men. But in one of the few interviews given since her son’s death, Bernstein’s mother this week drew a more nuanced picture of her son as a young man who first excelled in writing and the arts, but who was discovering a new path in the sciences as a college student.

Camera icon Courtesy of David Thalberg
Blaze Bernstein with his parents at his graduation from Orange County School of the Arts in 2016.

Blaze, 19, had come to Philadelphia after graduating from the Orange County School of the Arts. While his classmates zoomed off to college arts programs, he prepared to take nearly all science courses at Penn as part of the Vagelos Program in the Molecular Life Sciences.

As of June 2014, the program had close to an 80 percent dropout rate, according to a report in the Daily Pennsylvanian, the campus newspaper.

The curriculum’s fearsome reputation did not intimidate Blaze.

“The sciences were easy for him,” Jeanne Bernstein told the Inquirer and Daily News. “He could be one of the 20 percent” who survive the program.”

Bernstein said she never doubted Blaze’s aptitude for the difficult course work, but worried that a focus on hard sciences would stunt his opportunities to study the humanities. She wanted him to be a doctor who understood the importance of biomedical ethics.

At Penn, Blaze was drawn to writing as an extracurricular activity, not something to be studied in the classroom. He spoke excitedly to his mother about his role on Penn Appetit, a food magazine. He was set to become managing editor of Penn Appetit and a copy editor for 34th Street Magazine, a campus arts and culture magazine.

Last October, Blaze’s writing caused a stir on campus. The Daily Pennsylvanian published his blistering opinion column about recent restrictions on student social life after Penn began cracking down on unregistered parties as a result of recommendations released the previous year by a task force. Blaze believed the task force should have more directly targeted sexual violence.

“To err is to be human, but to be a Penn administrator is to never learn from those mistakes,” he wrote, adding that a vice provost, Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, did “not have the skill set to tackle such a nuanced set of issues.”

That drew a sharp clapback from McCoullum, who wrote in a response column, “You do not know me. You have exercised your imperative to speak. However, I disagree, with every core of my being, with your premise and your conclusions.”

Bernstein’s mother, a lawyer, said the column — which appears on the website his parents set up in his honor — reflected his activist temperament and the ethical and cultural values that she and his father, Gideon, a financial adviser, instilled in him.

“Culturally for us, as Jewish people, I feel, it’s thought [that] you do things like that, you stand up for what you believe in,” his mother said. “He was kind of raised to be an activist.”

Camera icon Courtesy of David Thalberg
Mourners left rocks at the place in Borrego Park in California where University of Pennsylvania sophomore Blaze Bernstein was last seen.

In the weeks since his disappearance, Bernstein said, she was heartened by an outpouring of support from across the country, especially Penn president Amy Gutmann, who she said offered “much-needed words of encouragement.”

“I’ve seen people lighting Shabbat candles who are not Jewish, to honor my son,” she said of her Orange County neighbors.

Blaze himself often would build a bridge rather than burn it, his mother said.

Twenty days after his opinion column was published, the sophomore sent an open apology to McCoullum in the form of a letter to the editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian.

“I would like to apologize to you Valarie for any statements I made that questioned your credentials or efficacy,” he wrote. “Thank you for all you do for our campus.”

The apology was never published: The opinion editor, Alessandro van den Brink, said Tuesday that it didn’t seem relevant at the time.

Ironically, it was McCoullum, the vice provost for university life, who had the task of informing the Penn community of Bernstein’s death.

“He loved the written word,” she wrote in the school-wide announcement. “I came to know Blaze, and I grieve his passing as I do all student deaths.”