BY SUSAN JACOBS JABLOW
Two tragedies motivated twin brothers Dwan and Donald Walker, fellow alumni from the Class of '99, to make a change in their hometown of Aliquippa.
The first was in May 2009, when a 15-year-old Aliquippa resident was struck and killed by a car driven by another teenager, who was intoxicated. Diedre, the Walkers' younger sister, urged Dwan, a hefty, gregarious man, to speak at the boy's wake to young people who were crying and trying to make sense of the tragedy. Reluctantly, he approached them and told them that they could prevent future tragedies by keeping themselves and their friends from making foolish choices.
The teens listened to Dwan, and seemed to draw some comfort from his words. Seeing the effect he had, Diedre told him he should run for mayor. Initially he shrugged it off, but stepping outside the church, he suddenly felt inspired. "Something just hit me," Dwan says. "It lit a fire in me." That night, he told his family that he intended to run. Soon he was talking to friends and neighbors and planting the seeds for a campaign.
The second tragedy came that September, when Diedre was shot and killed by an ex-boyfriend who then committed suicide. The crime deeply affected the community, and some 2,000 people came to Diedre's funeral. Dwan and Donald were devastated. But after an intense period of grieving, they resolved to improve their hometown and make it a safer place. Dwan resumed his plan to run for mayor, and Donald joined him, running for city council.
Despite the hard times their city has faced since the late 1980s, when the former J&L Steel mill closed, the Walker brothers are loyal to Aliquippa and hopeful for its future. They both coach in local youth leagues. "You've got to love where you're from," says Dwan. "It makes you who you are."
Dwan holds a day job as a FedEx account executive, and is in the municipal office after 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, often until 10 at night. Donald is a wraparound therapeutic support specialist, working with students who have mental and behavioral problems. He is also a substitute teacher for the local school system. He is 10 minutes older than his brother, and is, by far, the quieter one. "I'm methodical," he says. "My brother's the energy person."
While Dwan and Donald are new to politics, it does run in the family. Their great aunt, Jessie Bell Walker, was a longtime city councilwoman. (Her son, Myron Walker '08, is the all-time leading scorer in Colonials basketball and the reason the twins came to Robert Morris.) The Walkers ran on the "One Aliquippa" ticket, named to emphasize the importance of unity and leadership to transform the town. Dwan spent months knocking on doors, talking to people about their hopes.
The small city's population of around 9,400 is less than 40 percent black, though it is widely perceived to be mostly black. Aliquippa had never had a black mayor, but Dwan says he was not concerned about racism during his run. He did worry that it would be difficult to win in a community that had long been dominated by an influential group of politicians. The incumbent mayor, Anthony Battalini, had been in office for 12 years.
In the 2011 Democratic primary, Dwan beat Battalini by a 2-to- 1 margin. Unopposed in the general election, he was sworn in this year as mayor, with Donald taking a seat on city council. When some of the municipal staff, including the city manager, left their jobs, Dwan asked fellow alumnus and longtime friend Samuel Gill M'05 to help. Gill is now city manager.
The Walkers want to change the image of the city by making it a more vibrant place to live and work. Goals include a new recreation center and swimming pool, as well as infrastructure improvements to prevent flooding and improve cell phone reception, which is spotty at best. "Love, support, and prayers carried us to where we are," Dwan says.
Both Walkers loved their student days at RMU, where they were members of the Colonials football team and roommates their freshman and sophomore years. Dwan majored in communications, and Donald studied media production. They recall fondly that several professors gave them special encouragement and support. "They put their arms around us," says Dwan. "RMU made us well-rounded. We learned to deal with people at all levels."