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A high school grad was awarded an $8k scholarship in honor of her best friend who was shot and killed

"This was probably the most memorable graduation ceremony I’ve attended," said Chris Moore, head of Freire Charter High School.

Alanna Walker-Kegler wipes tears from eyes after receiving the Antonio Walker Jr. Memorial Scholarship.
Alanna Walker-Kegler wipes tears from eyes after receiving the Antonio Walker Jr. Memorial Scholarship.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

Alanna Walker-Kegler always envisioned that her best friend, Antonio Walker Jr., would be seated next to her on the day they graduated from high school.

She could see it all so clearly: how they would whisper jokes during the speeches like they did in class. How Walker would do some kind of dance across the stage, and she’d follow close behind.

But on Monday, as 77 of Freire Charter High School’s graduating seniors lined up across the stage of the Dell Music Center to receive their diplomas, Walker was not there.

Three years ago, in March 2021, the 15-year-old was shot and killed as he walked through West Philadelphia after playing basketball. He was killed in a case of mistaken identity, as part of an ongoing feud between gangs in the neighborhood, police said. His killer pleaded guilty to the crimes last week.

Ever since her friend’s death, Walker-Kegler has carried a piece of him with her. His photo hangs on a pendant that she wears around her neck daily.

The friendship came full circle Monday when Walker-Kegler, 18, learned she was honored with the Antonio Walker Jr. Memorial Scholarship — an $8,000 award to a graduating senior who excels as a student athlete and young entrepreneur, and “embodies the inquisitiveness, realness, and compassion that made Antonio a friend to all.”

When Walker-Kegler’s name was read aloud, she immediately began to cry. She covered her face with her hands as she walked toward Walker’s mother, Nydisha Williams, in tears. They held each other in a long embrace as the crowd cheered.

The teen, who is from West Philadelphia, said that while the money will help as she begins her freshman year at Widener University in the fall, the privilege of having known and been a friend to Walker was a more precious gift. It was priceless, she said.

“He was my friend,” she said. “I already got enough.”

Walker-Kegler said she plans to major in criminal justice and join the school’s Reserved Officers’ Training Corps. The scholarship was funded by a Goldman Sachs small business program, and founded by Walker’s parents, who worked with Freire and the funders as part of the Antonio Walker Jr. Foundation, which they created after his death.

Walker, a student at Freire since the seventh grade, was a gentle and curious teen. He enjoyed science and cared about the environment, taking a particular interest in learning about electric cars and how businesses could work to reduce their carbon emissions, said his mother. He was in the early stages of starting a clothing line, “Dark Child Apparel,” which his sister Aalaiyah has since launched in his memory.

He was an accomplished member of Freire’s track team. And unlike most kids his age, he was a vegetarian, who often watched Bob Ross’ painting shows to relax, Williams said.

“He was a deeper thinker, always connected to the bigger picture,” she said.

He was the second-oldest of six children, and part of a blended family. He never got to meet his youngest brother, who is now 2, and was killed on his eldest sister’s 18th birthday.

Although Walker’s freshman year of high school was virtual, he left a lasting impression on his teachers. Mary Tokolish, his English teacher, said he showed up each day ready to learn, and always kept his camera on for Zoom — a significant feat among teenagers.

And Walker-Kegler, she said, is one of the “coolest kids I’ve ever met, and one of the most empathetic.” After Walker was killed, she said, the teen helped her classmates grieve, encouraging people to be open about their pain and not bottle it up. She hosted multiple walks and events in Walker’s honor.

“I’ve done this for 12 years and this was probably the most memorable graduation ceremony I’ve attended,” said Chris Moore, head of the school. “I think this has to do with the company and the story of this class.”

Walker’s father and namesake, Antonio Walker Sr., said he barely slept Sunday night. The car ride to the Dell Center was quiet, he said, save for his toddler’s babbling in the backseat. The family was on edge, he said, unsure how they would handle what should have been a celebratory day.

He and Williams stood together clapping quietly as each senior was called to accept a diploma. Williams was smiling, but tears streamed down her cheeks.

Antonio Walker Jr. was the last name called. The parents walked across the stage to a roaring standing ovation.

Afterward, the father struggled to speak.

“There’s no words,” he said, his lips quivering. “I feel like I’m missing something.”

Because he was. And he always would be.