• Close to Home:  The Walker Brothers

    Close to Home: The Walker Brothers

About the Exhibit

An online-only presentation of the lives of Ryan and Keith Walker.

Key Info

Type: Online
Walker Brothers

Sally and Deward “Dewey” Walker were married in 1971 and welcomed their son Ryan in 1975, followed by their son Keith in 1977. When Ryan was four days old, Sally sought out an orthopedic evaluation owing to stiffness in Ryan’s hips and elbows. That was the start of a three-and-a-half-year search to find a diagnosis, which was finally delivered at Mott’s Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI. Both Ryan and Keith were diagnosed with enzyme-confirmed Mycopolysaccharidosis Type II (Hunter syndrome). Hunter syndrome is a progressive genetic disorder, causing neurological and physical problems, including speech delay, hearing problems and joint deformities, among others.

There is no cure for Hunter Syndrome, and both Ryan and Keith ultimately passed away from the disease in 1992. Despite this diagnosis, Dewey and Sally worked to give their sons as many typical childhood experiences as possible, fighting for Ryan and Keith the whole way. This led them to be the first students enrolled in the Inclusive Education program in the city of Kalamazoo.


An Inclusive Education

Ryan attended Parkwood Upjohn School in the Special Education Developmental Pre-Primary Program, as well as a co-op preschool for half-days. Keith attended the co-op preschool and also regular Kindergarten at Indian Prairie School. Due to the progressive nature of the disease, the education programs and services needed were constantly changing. Even with all of these services, Keith and Ryan were unmotivated, unhappy and depressed, and Sally and Dewey knew something needed to change.

The Walkers started exploring educational options, attending conferences and workshops on “Supported Education” (now known as Inclusion). While the United States was not yet enacting Inclusive Education across the board, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act passed in 1975. This was a first, and meant access to free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment to each child with a disability. In 1976, the Michigan Mandatory Special Education Act reinforced the national mandate that had passed one year earlier. However, these acts were not made for Inclusive Education, and by 1990, most of the 1,000 special education students in Kalamazoo were still in self-contained classrooms in regular school buildings.

Because of Sally’s unending efforts, Ryan and Keith were the first students to enroll in the Inclusive Education program at Hillside Middle School in 1990, also the first in the city’s public school system. Sally noted the difference in her sons. The boys attended school dances, hung out at the mall with friends and improved their social and communication skills. In January of 1991, the Kalamazoo Board of Education adopted a policy making Inclusive Education a standard option for special education students.

  • Hand-Painted Banner from Ryan’s Circus, 1991

    Hand-Painted Banner from Ryan’s Circus, 1991

    This banner was one of two that were displayed along the road outside the Cheff Center, advertising the circus.
  • Ryan (right) stands next to ringmaster Charles Curry

    Ryan (right) stands next to ringmaster Charles Curry

    Tony the Tiger was on hand for the circus, and he, with the help of some clowns, handed out gift bags to all of Ryan’s classmates. Charles Curry and wife Jan were longtime volunteers at the Cheff Center. When they heard about the circus, they went to the Civic Theatre in Kalamazoo to borrow the costume for the event.
  • Ryan as Funshine the Clown

    Ryan as Funshine the Clown

    His desire to be a clown came from wanting to make people smile and was also a way to thank all of his school friends. Keith sits on his mother’s knee.
  • Ryan and his mother Sally, getting him ready to be Funshine the Clown

    Ryan and his mother Sally, getting him ready to be Funshine the Clown

    Ryan’s Circus

    Held in October 1991, Ryan’s Cavalcade of Clowns included more than 50 clowns, horseback vaulting teams, sleight of hand artists and a circus band. This free event featured Ryan as Funshine the Clown, who performed to a crowd of over 1,300 people. The Cavalcade ended with Ryan playing basketball with the clowns. Ryan’s main goal was to make people happy, and, more specifically, he wanted to thank his friends at school who were so welcoming. With a little help from Bliss Brown and the Cheff Center, he was able to do that. Five months later, in February of 1992, Ryan passed away. His brother followed in December that same year. Though their time was short, the impact that Ryan, Keith and their parents had on their classmates and the status of Inclusive Education in the city of Kalamazoo lasts today.

    Welcome to Ryan’s Circus


    Sally and Dewey knew the importance of maintaining Keith and Ryan’s skills as long as possible, and sports were a large part of making that happen. Ryan loved anything with a ball, especially basketball, so the Walkers sought out opportunities for their boys to play.

    While playing in a variety of sports leagues, the boys also rode horses at The Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta, MI. The relationship built with the Center’s founder, Bliss Brown, led to a unique opportunity: fulfilling Ryan’s dream of being a clown. Following a disappointing experience with the Ringling Bros circus, Brown put together Ryan’s Cavalcade of Clowns at the Center.

    The Challenger Division

    Started by Edgar Beardsley and championed by Bob Dole, the Challenger Division was a separate division of The National Little League meant to expose boys and girls with physical and/or mental challenges, ages 6-26, to the game of baseball. Participants benefit from structured athletic program that strengthens self-esteem, allows for mainstream interaction, and instills the disciplines of teamwork and fair play.

    Ryan and Keith both played in the Challenger League, and these hats, glove and trophy are all representative of their time playing. Friends of Keith and Ryan would help push their wheelchairs following a hit.

    Kalamazoo Valley Museum
    General Admission Is Free

    230 North Rose Street
    Kalamazoo, MI 49007
    800.772.3370 | 269.373.7990
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    The Kalamazoo Valley Museum is operated by Kalamazoo Valley Community College and is governed by its Board of Trustees.

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    2021 American Alliance of Museums.
    All rights reserved.

    2021 Kalamazoo Valley Museum.
    All rights reserved.