THEY GREW UP on tiny Vogdes Street, a West Philly block framed by a rec center and playground to the north and noisy Baltimore Avenue to the south.

An elementary school, Harrity, is around one corner at 56th and Christian streets, and a recently closed "nuisance bar," where neighbors say shootings and "all kind of mess" took place, is at the other corner, on Baltimore.

The block includes an array of homes: mostly neat, modest rowhouses, a couple of boarded-up vacant ones, and one meticulous, stone-fronted residence with a garden of luscious potted plants on a patio that faces the street and is enclosed by a wrought-iron fence.

All their lives, the four Williams brothers - Keith Jr. and triplets Jason, Oliver and Quentin - heard their mother, Linda, tell them: "It's a big world out there - much bigger than Vogdes Street."

The triplets, now 22, are ready to follow Keith Jr., 25, into that larger world. They just graduated from college with bachelor's degrees. And Keith Jr., already an electrical engineer, also graduated last week with his second postgraduate degree, a master's in business administration.

Both Linda, who stayed home with the boys until they began kindergarten, and Keith Williams Sr., a janitor at the Daily News and Inquirer building, urged their sons to stay focused on education.

"When they were little kids, we always told them, 'You're going to college,' " Keith Sr. said, "even before they knew what college was."

Visitors to Vogdes Street could easily pick out the Williams home in recent weeks. It was decorated with a silver "Congratulations, Graduate!" banner on the front porch. On each side of the banner were homemade signs bearing the four brothers' names.

Quentin and Oliver both earned electrical-engineering degrees from Polytechnic Institute of New York University on June 1 (Polytechnic University merged with NYU and became known as Polytechnic Institute of NYU last year.). Jason graduated May 14 from Temple University's Fox School of Business with a degree in business administration.

It's no surprise that Jason took a different path from his two triplet brothers.

The family said that Oliver and Quentin are identical twins and that Jason is fraternal. Because of this, Jason said, he has always felt slightly apart from his brothers.

"There is definitely a closer bond between them," Jason said. "It was a good thing, because I was able to forge my own identity and to stand on my own two feet."

Keith Jr., who works for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, graduated from North Philly's George Washington Carver High School of Engineering & Science before getting a bachelor's degree in computer and electrical engineering from Polytechnic in 2006.

He earned his first master's degree, in management of technology, in 2007, and his MBA this year, all from Polytechnic.

"When I was younger, and my brothers were first born, I grew into responsibility kind of quickly," Keith Jr. said. "Being the oldest and having these three to follow after me, I wanted to do good, because I knew they were going to be looking up to me.

"It started at an early age. I remember seeing them mimic me and doing what I told them to do. Knowing I had that kind of influence over them, I kind of caught on quickly that I had to do something good."

No one else in the family had gone to college, and Keith Jr. said he finds it "amazing" that his parents were able to see all four of their children graduate.

"There was really no pressure on us," Keith Jr. said. "They let us find our own way. They followed our interests. They saw what I did and what I liked as a child and tried to map everything around that."

Divergent paths

At Mastery Charter High School, Oliver and Quentin became interested in engineering after getting involved with a robotics program.

"We would go in on weekends and stay late at night preparing for competitions," Quentin said.

It was during those long hours that a couple of engineers who volunteered with the school talked with the students about engineering as a career.

Quentin said that as high-school juniors they didn't realize that their older brother was studying electrical engineering at college until they became seniors and started thinking of college themselves.

Jason was also at Mastery Charter High. While there, he earned an internship with the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Institute at Temple's Fox School of Business. He came up with a business idea that focused on organizing events to keep inner-city children off the streets.

In college, Jason also participated in Temple's semester-abroad program, spending the spring semester of his junior year in Rome. He said that his father helped him raise the money for the trip and that his mother always urged him to take advantage of opportunities.

"My dad worked two and three jobs to support us," Jason said.

Challenging years

Linda and Keith Williams Sr. didn't have a lot of money to spend on the latest computer or video games. But they made every effort to expose their sons to as much of the world beyond Vogdes Street as they could.

There were "Science in the Summer" workshops at the Blanche A. Nixon branch of the Free Library at 58th Street and Cobbs Creek Parkway. There were trips to science museums and the Philadelphia Zoo, as well as organized baseball, tennis and karate. And, always, there was scouting.

As Boy Scouts - the triplets made Eagle Scout in their last year of high school - the brothers went on frequent camping trips in the woods, away from the city's harsh streets.

"It opens your eyes," Oliver said of camping, "just going out of the city. Unfortunately, some people don't get out of the city."

But Scouting wasn't just camping and winning merit badges, he added.

"It was more than that," he said. "It was doing something constructive with your time and having a scoutmaster who was always guiding us in the right direction."

For most of their boyhood, they were Scouts with Troop 270 at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 57th and Christian streets.

Along the way, Oliver admitted, there were times the boys asked their mother, " 'Don't you think it's time we quit Scouting?' "

And she would tell them: " 'You've stuck with it this far. See it to the end,' " Oliver said.

(Keith Jr. also had been a Boy Scout in high school. But when making plans for college, he pulled back from Scouting to focus on working to save money, he said.)

The Williamses' education story isn't quite complete.

Oliver and Quentin have both been accepted into the graduate program at Polytechnic Institute. But they want to find full-time work as engineers and obtain their master's degrees as part-time students.

Jason is also looking for full-time work. He's interested in a Temple graduate program that requires students to have at least two years of work behind them.

And in about a year, their mother may have to put up a "Congratulations, Graduate!" banner for herself.

Four years ago, with her three younger sons in college, Linda Williams found a job as a library technician at La Salle University.

Getting the job at the same time her sons started college made her think it was time for her to complete her college degree. The free tuition for employees was also a deciding factor.

"My mother had been a nurse," she said, "and I'd always wanted to go to college for nursing, but I got sidetracked."

She had taken some classes at Community College of Philadelphia, but her growing family soon took priority.

As a La Salle employee, however, Linda began pursuing her bachelor's degree in nursing, during her off hours.

After this summer, she will only have four more classes to go before she too can wear the cap and gown of a college graduate.

"It's going slowly but surely," she said of her own college experience. "The end is in sight." *