Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper, parents of former Penn student Blaze Bernstein, came to campus on Monday evening for the second time since the death of their son.
Blaze, a College sophomore, died in a homicide in January this year. His parents returned to campus in February to pick up his items, just as news agencies began to report on the arrest of Blaze’s alleged killer, Sam Woodward, and his ties to a neo-Nazi hate group.
Since then, more details have emerged around this case. In August, the Orange County Sheriff's Department added a hate crime enhancement to Woodward's list of charges, arguing that the 21-year-old killed Blaze because he was gay.
On Monday, Bernstein and Pepper returned to Philadelphia to join members of the Kelly Writers House at the annual Edible Books Contest, which was dedicated in Blaze's memory. The couple also helped to fund this year's event.
“To me, it’s something meaningful. You get to see all the students participating in something he loved doing,” Bernstein said.
While at Penn, Blaze was involved with several publications on campus as well as with the Kelly Writers House. He had participated in the Edible Books Contest in both his freshman and sophomore years: In 2016, Blaze brought a piece of dough and named his project, “The Dough Also Rises” — a play on the Ernest Hemingway book, “A Sun Also Rises"; last year, his project centered on the Pearl S. Buck book “The Good Earth,” and he brought a potted dirt cake.
This year, his parents submitted a project in his honor, also based on “The Good Earth,” called “The Gouda Earth.” They placed a wedge of cheese on a bed of foraged wood mushrooms.
Bernstein and Pepper were judges of the contest and also helped sponsor it through an endowment fund they started at the Kelly Writers House, which will contribute to one of the RealArts summer internships in Los Angeles. They said they hope to be a resource for and form a connection with the student based on the West Coast.
Jamie-Lee Josselyn, one of the contest’s judges and the associate director for recruitment for the Creative Writing Program, was also Bernstein’s academic advisor and has remained in contact with Blaze's family since his death. She said the Edible Books Contest was one of his favorite events.
“When we thought of how we needed to remember Blaze at the Writer’s House, this event was the first event that came to mind,” she said.
“A lot of us knew immediately that this needed to be one of the ways we remember Blaze here,” Josselyn said.
This year, the contest introduced a new category, titled "Blaziest," to honor the former student. A plate with a pink ball of chewed gum, titled “Gum Girl” — based on the book “Gone Girl” — won the title and prize, which was a box of Blaze's favorite drink, La Croix.
For Bernstein and Pepper, this event held a great significance, since it fused two of Blaze's greatest interests and was always an event Blaze enjoyed. His father saw their attendance and participation in this event as part of their "co-destiny" with their son.
"I’m trying to feel like he’s with us when we’re doing this or that we’re experiencing something that he would have been experiencing along the way. This is something I know he would have been at," Bernstein said.
“The Writers House is the kind of place where the community is so strong and Blaze really felt at home here. This is the part of Penn that has figured out how to remember him,” said Al Filreis, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. “As long as we have this event, we will remember Blaze.”