Whenever College senior Josef Hoenzsch walked to his dorm room during his freshman year, he would look toward the same bench in the Upper Quad. That’s where his friend Alex Moll liked to sit, usually working on his laptop, sometimes wearing his favorite red cashmere scarf, and always ready to lend an ear.
“Everything he did was trying to help other people,” Hoenzsch recalls. “He was one of those people who always took every moment to listen to what you were saying.”
But while Moll listened to his friends’ problems, he never revealed a bigger one of his own: that for seven years he had been battling osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that many thought would prevent him from ever making it to college.
Moll just wanted to fit in as a typical Penn student, despite a disease that had already forced the removal of his thyroid gland, a kidney, and two-thirds of a lung, in addition to a leg reconstruction.
“He was very private about it,” his mother, Melanie says. “He didn’t like to be singled out.”
That made it even more shocking to Moll’s friends and teachers when he passed away on August 13, 2013, between his freshman and sophomore years, at the age of 19.
What he kept no secret about was his love for Penn, which is what prompted his family to endow the Alexander James Moll, C’2016, Memorial Scholarship in his honor. The scholarship will provide financial support to an undergraduate in the College who would otherwise be unable to meet the cost of a Penn education, with first preference for a student who shares Alex’s passion for music. This fall, Tochukwu “Tochi” Awachie became the first recipient.
A College freshman of Nigerian descent, Awachie plays several instruments and aspires to become a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist.
“That they found me worthy of following in [Alex’s] footsteps just made me speechless,” Awachie said at a scholarship donor reception at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in November. “I still kind of can’t believe it,” she added. “They said I’m part of their family now, and that’s truly an honor.”
Awachie isn’t the only one to unofficially join the Moll family, which, along with Melanie, includes Alex’s father, Kevin Moll C’76, his grandmother, Marilyn, and his younger brother Andrew. At the scholarship reception, Awachie sat with Hoenzsch and Nursing senior Kelsey Plona, another one of Alex’s friends at Penn. Melanie Moll said both have become like children to her and have been given some of Alex’s most prized possessions, including his red scarf and Penn bowtie.
Melanie has also grown close to Mouhamed Cisse, a 13-year-old student at West Philadelphia’s Lea Elementary School to whom Alex gave cello lessons during his freshman year. In addition to bequeathing money to Penn’s music department, Alex marked $15,000 for his young friend to continue his cello studies, which Melanie has used to help send him to music camp the past two summers.
Alex’s friends reminisced about the relationship he had built with Cisse. “When Alex came in with that cello, he really concentrated,” Plona recalled. “I remember walking into one of the classrooms and seeing Mouhamed playing cello, and it was incredible that Alex was able to get him to be focused enough to do that. Alex had a really good way with him—with pretty much everyone.”
Plona remembered Alex, whom she met at a PennArts pre-orientation program, as a shy kid who was “very complimentary and very kind to me” but never wanted to talk much about himself. Once, when they were walking back from the 1920 Commons dining hall to the Quad, she noticed Alex limping and asked if he was okay. Evidently reluctant to reveal that he had to wear a lift in his sneaker due to a damaged growth plate in his leg related to one of his surgeries, he adamantly insisted that everything was fine. Another time, while studying together for an anatomy class, she remarked on his bout of sniffles and asked if he had a cold. Once again, he brushed it off.
“I didn’t ask questions,” she said. “But part of me wishes I had asked more questions. I feel like he knew me better than I was able to know him, because he was a giver.”
According to Melanie, Alex was always self-conscious about his leg, but didn’t let that stop him from leaving the comforts of his Greenville, North Carolina, home for a strange city with new people who might ask questions. In fact, after being put on the wait list at Penn, he wrote weekly letters to the admissions office in which he quoted Benjamin Franklin. Perhaps it worked, because on the same day he graduated high school, he got the email he so desperately wanted.
“I was so happy for him,” his father recalled. “Penn was exactly the right place for him. And it was where I went. It was just thrilling for me.”
Melanie shared the excitement but admitted to feeling “petrified” too. Had Alex gone to the nearby University of North Carolina—where he’d been accepted into the honors program—she would have been more comfortable in the event of an emergency. But she didn’t try to sway her son’s mind, especially after he immediately went online to buy Penn sweatshirts, T-shirts, and pennants.
When he landed on campus, Alex quickly embraced all that Penn had to offer, from volunteering at Lea Elementary, to earning a second chair position in the orchestra, to getting an A+ in his favorite class—a course on utopianism that examined the work of the Scottish-American environmental philosopher John Muir.
That wasn’t surprising to his family. Alex had long been fascinated by Muir, an early advocate of wilderness preservation in the late 1800s. In that last summer of 2013, Alex told his father he wanted to visit Muir Woods National Monument in northern California, which is known for its tall redwood trees. His father, always up for an adventure, obliged.
Perhaps Alex knew he didn’t have much time left. While on the West Coast, he was whisked to Stanford University Hospital, where, Kevin said, “the doctors thought he was going to die that night.” He was then taken into hospice care—but not before getting to spend a couple of hours among the redwoods. And he survived long enough for Melanie, who had been in a bad car accident, and Andrew to fly out to see him. (Sandy Schwartz M’74, the faculty director of Fisher-Hassenfeld College House, Alex’s freshman dorm, visited too—a gesture the family felt deeply.)
Shortly after his mom arrived, Alex asked a nurse to call her to his bedside. It was 3 a.m.
“Mom,” Melanie remembers him saying. “I think I’m going to die. Is that OK? Can I die?”
Then he told her about some of the things he wanted after his death, which included a brick on the Class of 1949 Generational Bridge on Locust Walk and a concert for him at Penn.
“I was like, ‘Oh God, Alex,’” Melanie said at the scholarship reception, choking back tears. “What do you say?”
Alex ended up surviving a few more days, during which he was transported back to Charlotte to undergo more chemotherapy. But he died soon after his return. A month after that, Hoenzsch and other heartbroken Penn students played a concert in his honor on College Green.
“Me and Alex, we kind of had a pact—that you never give up,” Melanie said. “But he had a long time to process it. He was always a little bit of an old soul. He came to terms with the fact that he was going to die.”
It’s been harder, of course, for his family to come to terms with losing him. Given all of his interests and talents, Melanie often wonders about the things he may have accomplished.
But the Molls hope that, in some small way, a piece of Alex will live on through the scholarship, and that they will find a little bit of solace in welcoming other bright young minds to the school where their son found so much happiness in his final months.
“That year at Penn, it made his life,” Kevin said. “I really believe that.”
—Dave Zeitlin C’03