AIKEN - Pamela Key often said she hoped her son Steven would be the first in the family to attend college.
Today, Steven Key, 18, will move closer to fulfilling his late mother's dream when he graduates with honors from Aiken High School with plans to attend the University of South Carolina.
"There was nothing more important to her than watching me get my undergraduate degree," Mr. Key said of his mother, who died in November 2002 after battling cancer. His father, Wayne, died two years later.
"That's what my mother and father were working me toward. She would have been pushing me every inch of the way," Mr. Key said.
His parents will be in his thoughts as he dons his cap and gown and collects his diploma, he said, but while his mother and father inspired him to excel in his academics, many others stepped in to help.
"I could write about a thousand thank-you cards," Mr. Key said.
Throughout high school, friends, educators and Aiken County residents rallied behind Mr. Key, providing everything from rides to and from school to scholarships.
"I'm definitely excited," he said of his enrollment at the University of South Carolina, which has awarded him a Palmetto Fellows Scholarship.
Joseph Laorenza, the director of bands at Aiken High School, who conducted Mr. Key in the Concert Band and Wind Symphonia, said reaching out to his student was natural.
"We always consider the band to be a family," Mr. Laorenza said. "Steven is a very mature individual for his age and has been able to accept the challenge that he's had to confront with the loss of his parents."
"Ever since my father passed away, he has become like a second father to me," Mr. Key said of Mr. Laorenza. "Music is the one thing that's kept me going. I have this goal, this passion, this drive to become a musician, which is why I think people have responded so well. They see that ambition I have right now."
Linda Strojan, a senior counselor at Aiken High, said she has seen Mr. Key's determination.
"The Aiken community has rallied behind him and really given him the support," Ms. Strojan said. "He has a positive attitude. He approaches everything as a challenge and he seems to meet all his challenges.
"He is an inspiration, really, to all of us."
Mr. Key said he was grateful for the assistance his older sister Hope Pryor provided during high school, and he said he has tried to fulfill one of his mother's last requests by being a positive influence on his younger brother, William, 15, a student at Silver Bluff High School.
"I remember the conversation as we were driving home, 'Help your brother,'" said Mr. Key of his mother's appeal. "She made me promise."
Leaving Aiken to move in with relatives in Massachusetts was not an option he wanted, Mr. Key said.
"I chose to stay because I really wanted to graduate from Aiken," he said. "I thought that's what my mother wanted me to do."
Reach Nathan Dickinson at (803) 648-1395, ext. 109, or email@example.com.