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Paying Tribute to a Son Who Died Too Young

Tragedy: Friends and family of a popular youth counselor recall the success and generosity that ended when he was killed during an apparent robbery.

September 27, 1997|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Velma Walker Union, soon to graduate from Pasadena's Fuller Theological Seminary, will give her first eulogy today before what is expected to be a standing-room-only crowd at a church in the West Adams district.

It may well be the most heart-wrenching eulogy she will ever give. She is coming to the Southern Missionary Baptist Church to eulogize her only son, Juan Marichal Walker, who was killed in the garage of his Baldwin Hills home a week ago.

On the evening of Sept. 20, two young men confronted Walker, 32, possibly to rob him, said Los Angeles Police Det. Debra Winter. Then one of the men shot him, she said.

The tragedy was made all the more aching for those who knew the Walker who had devoted much of his life to working with troubled youths and keeping them out of gangs.

At the Crenshaw district's Youth Intervention Program, Walker's co-workers and friends, numbed by the loss, were hard-pressed to express their grief. They remembered him as a young man who would organize Thanksgiving dinners for the homeless, as a father who would take fatherless boys to their first baseball games, and as a motivator of young people always urging them to get involved.

"He had such a zest for living, and he was so generous," said Margo Wainwright, the program's director. "All you had to do was ask him once, and he would find a way to help you. We were so close it seems like someone just took part of my life away."

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Walker's own life began in 1965 in Chattanooga, Tenn., when his African American parents, Willie James and 16-year-old Velma, named him after the great San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal. Long before Marichal retired from baseball in 1975, Willie James Walker abandoned his family, leaving Velma to raise young Juan and a daughter, Andress, with the help of an aunt.

They raised him well.

Living in Nashville while attending Tennessee State University, his mother immersed Walker in the accounting and management principles she was learning on her way to a bachelor's degree in business. On Friday, she recalled Juan's money-making skills when he was just 7 years old.

"The neighborhood had an Easter egg hunt and Juan found more eggs than everybody," she said. "Later he kept running in and out of the house. By the look on his face, I knew something was going on. So I just stared at him for a while. Finally, he said, 'I knew you weren't gonna eat all those eggs, so I figured I sell some of them to my friends.' I think he got 5 cents an egg."

The family moved to Watts in 1973, giving Juan his first bittersweet taste of big inner-city life. It was a lingering taste that, years later, after a successful business career, led Walker back to the streets in a rewarding--but finally deadly--dream of helping troubled youths.

The family moved to Pasadena, where Walker's school grades won him a scholarship to the Claremont Colleges, where he earned a degree in political science.

"He was one of the best students I ever taught, and he loved to tell people that too," said government professor Alfred Balitzer.

Balitzer remembered the time in a freshman political science class when he announced that Walker had written the best essay of the semester.

"He jumped out of his chair and nearly hit the ceiling he was so thrilled," Balitzer said. "I've never seen a reaction like that."

After graduation, Walker became fascinated with the Young Republicans, campaigning for Reagan/Bush in 1984 and later working at the White House doing political research. However, his fascination with the Republican Party quickly turned to disenchantment.

"He realized the Republicans weren't doing anything at all for the black community," his mother said. "I remember him telling me, 'I don't want to walk on streets of gold, I want to walk on Crenshaw.' "

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So he returned to Los Angeles, where he opened a successful accounting firm. Six years ago, still managing the accounting firm, he began working full-time with Youth Intervention Program.

"He loved that job so much that sometimes he would call me four times a day to talk about how he helped a kid out of trouble," his mother said.

Balitzer remembers him as being "like a shooting star. He never saw himself as a victim. He only saw life as a series of opportunities and challenges. People like Juan do not come along too often. I used to say to him when he was 18 years old, 'You are going to have everything you want in life by the time you are 30. What are you going to do when you are 40?' "

Juan Marichal Walker's family and friends will never know. Still, his mother, Velma, says she knows where he'll be today.

"When I give the eulogy, he'll be right by my side," she said. "I believe Juan is up in heaven saying, kind of in a surprised and elated way, 'Hey, I made it!' I know he made it. He's really walking on streets of gold now."

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