The day began like any other school day for Walter Coggins Jr. It was August 2014, the second week of his senior year at B.E.S.T. Academy, an all-male public school in Atlanta. As he headed out the door, he exchanged goodbyes with his father.
Dad, I'm going to school.
All right, son. I love you, Walter Coggins Sr. said and kissed his son's forehead.
Expressions of love and encouragement were the Coggins' way. This family knew life was short and things could change in an instant.
Ten years earlier, Maya Coggins had dropped dead of a massive heart attack while shopping at Marshalls, leaving Walter Jr. and his two siblings without a mother and Walter Sr. without a wife. She was 29.
Losing one parent is hard enough on a child. Two is practically unthinkable. But when Walter Jr. returned home from football practice that day last August, he learned the horrible truth. His father — his best friend and protector — had died at age 40.
A fork-lift driver with heart and lung disease, Walter Sr. had not expected to live a long life, but he dreamed of seeing his gregarious, musically gifted son be the first Coggins man to graduate from college. Instead, just a year shy of graduating high school, Walter Jr. had lost both parents.
That kind of loss is enough to set any child adrift, but thanks to a posse of supporters, Walter Jr.'s dream for academic achievement didn't end there.
Walter Jr. takes after his mother. Maya Johnson was the life of the party at Atlanta's Archer High School, where she performed on the dance team and was always on the go. She met Walter Sr. when they were teenagers in the now-demolished University Homes housing project. After graduation, Maya attended Tennessee State University and Walter Sr. began working.
They married in their early 20s and started a family right away. Maya often brought former classmates and friends who were down on their luck to their home to feed them and let them take a shower.
"Little Walter is the same way," said Maya's mother, Jessyca Kates. "He has a big heart. He thinks he can save the world."
Walter also has his mother to thank for his musical talent. He began singing as a child after listening to his mother sing in the church choir.
After Maya died, Walter Sr. devoted himself to keeping the family together. Being a good father was a job he took seriously, and education was priority No. 1. It was a lesson Walter Jr. took to heart. The day after his father died, he returned to school.
"I knew he wouldn't want me to miss school," he said.
Walter Jr., 18, and his brother Jaharra, 16, now live with Walter Sr.'s brother Charles and his family in College Park. Their sister O'Lliyah, 10, lives with Kates.
"When Dad died we got closer," Walter said about his siblings. "My brother and I, we're like the Yin and the Yang. We always have each other's backs. We see our sister every month. We love and miss her."
For the first time in his life, Walter has his own room. The boys still squabble like typical siblings, but when Jaharra recently turned 16, Walter bought him a monogrammed baseball cap and a gold watch. He remembered how special his dad made him feel on his 16th birthday. He wanted Jaharra to feel that way, too.
Charles knows he can never take his big brother's place, but he and his wife Nitika are determined to finish what Walter Sr. and Maya started.
The power of song
Within minutes of meeting Walter, it's easy to see why people are drawn to him. He's built like a linebacker, but he greets you with a smile that never seems to end. He peppers his conversations with "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am." He jokes, he serenades and he is constantly in motion.
Ask him about his passion for music, and he belts out a smooth R&B ballad. Singing is something that grounds him and gives his life meaning. His musical role model is the late David Ruffin of The Temptations. Usher and John Legend are two of his current favorites.
He joined the chorus at B.E.S.T. Academy in the seventh grade and that year sang "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Georgia Dome during the Atlanta Football Classic. Two years later, he and some friends formed an R&B and rap group and performed during a V-103 concert at Philips Arena.
He and his friends are a tight-knit bunch.
"We all grew up together since sixth grade," Walter said. "We've seen a lot of our friends die or go to jail. I'm not the only one who has lost parents, some got shot. It's a brotherhood."
Like many teenage boys, Walter's had his brush with trouble. When he was 15, he got into hot water when a friend he was with pulled out some marijuana in the school auditorium. Walter chalks it up to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wasn't charged in the incident, but it served as a wake-up call.
Lots of helping hands
Lots of helping hands
Hasan Durley remembers well his first impression of Walter. The eighth-grader was joking around at the time and made a few off-color jokes. This kid is a little rough around the edges, Durley thought. But it didn't take him long to realize Walter was an ambitious student who just needed more focus.
Durley, an email tech supervisor at Moxie, an advertising agency and digital marketing firm, is Walter's mentor. The two were introduced by the Phoenix Boys Association, a nonprofit organization that, among other services, pairs mentors with boys ages 7-18 from some of Atlanta's toughest neighborhoods.
From the time Walter was 13, he and Jaharra have been visiting the Moxie offices once a week to get exposure to the workplace and professionals like Durley and Danny Muller, Jaharra's mentor.
The father of two teenagers, Durley quickly bonded with Walter over their mutual love of sports and music. When Durley, also a DJ, found out Walter Sr.'s favorite rapper was Ice Cube, they had another instant connection. He loves exposing mentees to new things. Last Christmas Durley took Walter to his daughter's musical theater concert.
They text and call each other often. Durley even opened a Snapchat account so he could talk to Walter on his level. Many mentees come to Moxie for homework help and career guidance. In building a relationship with Walter, Durley identified other areas he felt the teen needed to develop â€” test taking skills and applying himself in school. When he was 14, Walter was struggling with math and blamed his teacher. Durley told him he needed to take more responsibility and work harder. Walter listened and his math grades improved.
Muller may be Jaharra's mentor, but he's there for Walter, too. He often takes the brothers on trips and gives them odd jobs to earn money. Both men attended Walter Sr.'s funeral.
"They were there when I needed them," said Walter. "They are like my second fathers. They are angels. They've been that good to me. My Dad loved them."
During his junior year, Walter got serious about preparing for college. Last fall, he signed up for Project Grad, a nonprofit organization that helps ready high school students for college, and he attended college fairs at B.E.S.T. Initially Walter was interested in historically black colleges and universities, but Durley helped him narrow his focus on schools with good music programs and scholarship opportunities. He also recruited a colleague to help Walter study for the SAT and ACT.
Every decision you make has consequences, Durley told him.
When a recruiter from Young Harris College came to his school and shared information about the school's music program, Walter was sold. For his audition, he selected "You Raise Me Up," an inspirational song made popular by Josh Groban, to highlight his vocal skills. It could have been dedicated to all those who helped him come this far in his young life.
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up to more than I can be.
All of Walter's hard work paid off. The school awarded him a $4,000 vocal performance scholarship, with a promise of $11,000 more if he successfully completes an English and music class this summer.
"He has a wonderful voice and clearly a lot of potential as a musician," said Edwin "Sandy" Calloway, chairman of the Young Harris music department.
Walter also received $15,000 in Pell grants and expects to earn a few more scholarships to help with college costs.
Walter Sr.'s dream of his son being the first Coggins man to graduate college took one big step closer to coming true.
Two days before graduation, Walter and his classmates are in Hall C of the Georgia World Congress Center, practicing for the ceremony.
Dressed in a navy blue graduation robe with gold trim, he squirms in his seat, chatting with the girls in pink robes from B.E.S.T. Academy's sister school, Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy. When practice is over and the seniors head to the escalators, he runs behind a few girls and pulls their hair.
"Quit, Walter," one snaps.
But after practice, Walter grows serious when asked about his father. He wanted to be there for his children because he didn't have a father growing up, Walter says. He was a firm disciplinarian. But he was also fun and loved to tease his children by calling them "little morons." The phrase became a running joke in the Coggins home. If Walter asked if he could eat dinner, his father's reply would be, "Duh, moron."
"He always said, â€˜Show the world to love not to hate,'" Walter says. "That was his best advice."
Walter's ability to achieve his academic goals despite the tragedies in his life has made him an inspiration at B.E.S.T. Academy. For that reason he was invited to give a speech at graduation.
He credits his parents, even in their absence, for giving him the willpower to succeed.
"I knew they wanted me to be successful and I didn't want to let them down," he says.
Each student at B.E.S.T. received 20 tickets to the graduation ceremony, but that would never accommodate all the people who wanted to watch Walter cross the stage and receive his hard-earned diploma. He bought five more tickets from a classmate for $1 apiece. In the audience were Charles and Nitika, Kates, Jaharra and O'Lliyah. And so were Durley and Muller, who set up a video camera and filmed every moment like a proud parent.
"My life has been a roller coaster, but I make no excuses," Walter told the graduating class of 2015. "I mean, look at me. I stand before you with 19 acceptances from 19 different colleges and universities. ... Today I can say, â€˜Mom, Dad, your hard work paid off. Today I am proud to be a B.E.S.T. Academy Eagle. Now, watch me soar.'
"Better yet, watch us soar!"
The future is bright
This week, Walter leaves for Young Harris, a private, liberal arts college of 1,200 students nestled in the mountains of northeast Georgia. It will be a dramatically different environment than the one he's accustomed to, but his support team won't be far away. Muller will help him move into the dorm, and Durley plans to visit often.
Now that graduation is over, Walter is thinking big thoughts about his future.
He has no doubt he will become a well-known singer and ultimately a record company executive. If there is one thing Walter doesn't lack, it's confidence.
But it isn't just fame and fortune he's after. If anybody knows the value of giving to others, it's Walter, and he wants to pay it forward.
"Everybody wants to be famous with music and stuff," he said thoughtfully. "I want my own nonprofit organization to teach the kids in metro Atlanta the basic skills in vocal performance."
Asked what he thought his father would say to that, Walter replied, That's what I'm talking about, little moron. Make me proud.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Angela Tuck is a feature writer/coach at the AJC, where she has worked for 25 years. She has held a variety of leadership roles at the AJC, including education editor, public editor, newsroom recruiter and Cobb County editor. Previously she worked at the Detroit Free Press, the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader and The Tampa Bay Times. She has been a mentor and volunteer in Cobb, DeKalb and Atlanta public schools.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Kent D. Johnson is a veteran journalist with more than 31 years experience. He joined the AJC as sports photo editor in 1998 and has held a number of visual editing and shooting roles at the paper since, including photo assignment editor for nine years. Johnson also worked at papers in Charlotte, N.C., Jackson, Miss., Fort Myers, Fla., and Muskogee, Okla.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
I heard about Walter Coggins Jr. while working on a story about the Phoenix Boys Association. Five minutes into our first phone conversation, "Little Walter," as his family calls him, belted out a tune to show me his singing skills. Wow, I thought, this kid is not shy. And he can sing, too. Photographers Kent Johnson, Akili-Casundria Ramsess and I attended several of Walter's school functions, and I took him and two classmates to lunch to observe his interactions with friends. It was impossible to name all the people who have been there for Walter in my story. People like Lester Duncan with Phoenix Boys Association, Hailey Logsdon of Moxie, Project Grad coach Natifa Mustafa, B.E.S.T. chorus teacher Bonnie Williams and Walter's godparents, Tim and Judy Posey, to mention a few. Everyone I talked to was inspired by Walter's attitude and determination. Count me in that number, too.
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