Former Pittsburgh Student’s Life Cut Short

© Steven M. Falk/ Ava Dunn-Shaw looks over a high school graduation photo of her son, Clifford Dunn.
© Steven M. Falk/ Ava Dunn-Shaw looks over a high school graduation photo of her son, Clifford Dunn.

In the spring, Ava Dunn-Shaw and her daughter, Kenya Shaw, swallowed their unfading anguish and attended a tournament to honor the alumni of Franklin Learning Center High School’s basketball team. 

Ms. Dunn-Shaw’s son, Clifford Dunn, a scholar and a star shooting guard on the 1992 Philadelphia Public League championship team, was famous for passing up a basketball scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh in favor of an academic one.

“I don’t want to be a dumb athlete,” he told a surprised audience in a speech at graduation.

But whatever Mr. Dunn wanted to be or not be eluded him. He was slain at a barbecue in the north Philadelphia suburb of Cheltenham in August 1994, one week shy of his 20th birthday.

Suffering privately through the years, Ms. Dunn-Shaw, 63, was unaware that others sitting near her at the tournament, held in the gymnasium at Benjamin Franklin High School in the Spring Garden section of the city on May 7, carried the same holes in their hearts.

But as play commenced and mournful stories were shared, people slowly began to speak their unspeakable sorrows in a gym filled with sneaker squeaks and ghosts.

Between 1994 and 2011, five men who had been players for FLC basketball teams were shot dead, while a sixth hanged himself. In addition, the tournament’s organizer — Philadelphia Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Terry — survived a gun attack but carries a 9mm bullet in his right hip.

“I didn’t know about the teammates who died till the tournament,” Ms. Dunn-Shaw said. “It’s odd. It’s awful. Violence finds you.”

Precariousness to black lives

The shootings — three of them occurring in a seven-month period in 1995 — don’t appear to be linked. They’re viewed as grim coincidences.

FLC isn’t normally connected to violence. The magnet school in the Spring Garden neighborhood just north of the heart of Philadelphia requires decent grades and good behavior for admission.

The victims — all African-American — were working class or middle class. Three had gotten into college, one had been a community college student, and a fifth was months from matriculating at Bloomsburg University.

Regardless of achievement, there is a precariousness to black lives in this country. Many black kids “can find themselves exposed to the horrific possibilities of their dreams being snuffed out because black lives are not as valued in America,” said Eddie Glaude Jr., chairman of African-American studies at Princeton University.

Pull out a Philadelphia class photo and you may find faces of people no longer here, victims claimed by a sometimes violent world.

Deputy Terry blames Philadelphia for the mayhem, even though two shootings of former FLC players occurred outside the city.

“You can have the greatest or the worst upbringing, but the longer you live in this city, the more this can happen,” said Deputy Terry, 45, who works in the court system and sees the harshest aspects of Philadelphia — where, police figures show, 6,335 people were killed between 1994 and 2011, the span of the FLC killings.

“Basketball players, cheerleaders, nurses — they all die. People are violent. And no one has figured it out yet.”

I want my son back

At Clifford Dunn’s funeral, former FLC principal Charles Staniskis read the 1896 poem “To an Athlete Dying Young,” by the British poet A.E. Housman:

To-day, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

“He was a well-balanced person, an excellent student,” Mr. Staniskis said. When Mr. Dunn was still a sophomore at FLC, he tutored seniors in calculus.

At Pitt, Mr. Dunn had maintained a 3.3 grade-point average over two years.

A joy-filled practical jokester, Mr. Dunn — nicknamed “Binky” — once wrapped his family’s clothes in boxes and gave them as Christmas presents in their Olney home.

“We were always laughing,” said Kenya Shaw, 37.

Mr. Dunn’s stepfather, Stephen Shaw, sold burglar alarms. His mother is a patient-service coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania’s heart-transplant unit. Drawn to the medical field because of her job, Clifford Dunn was aiming for a career in administrative nursing. “I’m going to make a lot of money for all of us,” he told Ms. Dunn-Shaw.

Mr. Dunn didn’t get to keep that promise. On Aug. 13, 1994, days before he was to return to school, he was shot in the head with a chrome .38-caliber semiautomatic pistol after getting into a dispute at a Cheltenham cookout with a stranger named Victor Sanders, 26, of Norristown, a northwest Philadelphia suburb. Sanders, who said he was drinking heavily that night, is serving a life sentence.

Kenya Shaw, an artist and personal chef, said the sudden absence of Mr. Dunn’s once-constant basketball dribbling in the driveway created a silence that nearly drove her mad. “He wasn’t a thug,” she added. “He was a good person.”

After the funeral, Ms. Dunn-Shaw couldn’t work, eat, or lift her head off her pillow. Friends asked what they could do for her. She had a ready answer:

“I want my son back.”

The day ‘that damaged us’

The day Rodney Brown had to leave Penn State University seemed the saddest in his life.

A business major who had completed his sophomore year, Mr. Brown, then 21, was needed back home in North Philadelphia to tend to his mother, stricken with cancer.

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Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Alfred Lubrano /