Nicole, Aubrey and Charles Walker, from left, at a high school graduation…
For years, the Walker triplets were a fixture in their father's Pasadena barbershop.
Nicole, Aubrey and Charles worked at Just In Time Hair Trends every weekend. Sweeping up the floors, answering the phones, greeting customers, running the cash register.
"If you're black and you got your haircut in Pasadena, you knew about the Walker triplets," said Renatta Cooper, president of the Board of Education for the Pasadena Unified School District. "Everyone took an interest in them. You could tell they were going someplace."
Nicole, Aubrey and Charles, now 18, are the youngest children of Diane, a librarian, and Chuck, a barber. All three became star students, thanks to abundant familial love and community support.
This fall they set off for college. And now they're mailing off a thick stack of thank-you postcards to the people who helped them.
The pastor and several members of their Baptist church will get one, and so will the people who funded their high school and college scholarships. And so will more than a dozen aunts and uncles and siblings and godparents, and the members of the local branch of the NAACP, and too many other people to list here.
"We are grateful for your monetary contributions," the postcard reads. "We are using them for tuition and books … and new winter clothing!"
Nicole is at Barnard College in New York. Charles is at American University in Washington, D.C. And Aubrey is at Harvard.
I went to talk to their parents this week to ask a simple question: How did you do it? How did you simultaneously get three kids into great schools, when for a lot of families just getting one into college is hard enough?
"The secret of how this happened is right there," Charles "Chuck" Walker, 56, told me, pointing across his barbershop to a large plaque on the wall. It contains a pair of photographs of a young boy, and few words about his too-short life.
The Walkers lost their son Justin to cancer in 1990. He was 7.
"You pray, you're blessed and you move forward," Diane, 55, told me, describing the hard years after her son's death. She lost her baby boy, but then came the gift of life three years later, threefold. "When they came, I thought something great is going to happen."
Justin's death transformed Chuck too.
"It removed fear from my life," he told me. "Losing him is as fresh as yesterday. But I chose to fight."
Chuck left his sales job and returned to barbering, a trade that runs in the Walker family — Chuck cut hair when he was in grade school. He and Diane named the new barbershop Just In Time in honor of Justin.
I found Chuck there on Tuesday. He's a man of quiet intensity who works seven days a week, often until late in the evening. He does this, he told me, because it's the only way he knows how to live.
"I grew up on a farm," he said. "And on a farm, day or night, whether it's sunny or snowing, there's always work to do."
Both Diane and Chuck were born and raised in Arkansas. They brought to California strong country values, including a relentless work ethic and an embrace of family rituals like Sunday dinner, which often began with Chuck telling a story about lifting hay bales or milking cows.
When they needed an extra hand, they had no compunction about calling on their large extended family and their growing circle of Pasadena and Altadena friends for help.
And when you're raising triplets, you need an extra hand quite often.
"I was so sleep-deprived, I was hallucinating," Diane said, remembering when the triplets were newborns. "I thought there were people walking on the roof."
Diane had already raised three children before Nicole, Aubrey and Charles were born. But nothing prepared her for triplets: Among other things, they often communicated in a special "triplet language" growing up.
"They're all different, they're all extremely smart and you can't treat them the same," she told me. "One likes peanut butter, one likes jelly and one likes peanut butter and jelly."
The triplets started "working" on Saturdays at the barbershop when they were very small. "It was sometime after I learned to walk, but before I knew how to tie my shoes," Aubrey wrote on his resume. "My whole life I have worked, like my father before me."
Their mother spoke to them of the challenges that come with growing up African American: "You have to work twice as hard because there are things outside of your control working against you," Diane remembers her mother saying, that life is precious and not to be wasted.
"My mother is my light," Diane said. "She is passionate, ambitious, bright, full of life and optimism."
Aubrey and Charles were Boy Scouts, and Nicole was captain of her high school basketball team. They volunteered at the public library where their mother worked, serving a mostly Latino clientele. They worked on political campaigns and wrote for their school newspapers.
They were competitive with each other — but also united.
"We always used to say that we were a dynamic tripod that would never break and would always remain strong as long as we continued to support each other," Charles wrote to me from Washington.
All three were members of black student groups at their Pasadena campuses — Nicole and Charles at Marshall Fundamental High, Aubrey at Polytechnic, where he was student body president.
"Everything we have accomplished singularly is because we are a plural entity," Aubrey wrote to me from Harvard. "We are all doing well, not in spite of there being three of us, but because there are three of us."
In family, tradition and community there is strength. That's the message of the Walker triplets and their charmed and hardworking lives.
Back at the barbershop, Chuck nearly choked up telling me that Charles was now teaching needy children to read.
"If you learn to give, everything else will take care of itself," Chuck said.