On a cold, rainy Wednesday afternoon, Helena Wilson sends a text to change the location for the interview with Wednesday Journal. The interview was initially set at the Oak Park Public Library, a place Helena called home for her and her children.
“Library is too open, too familiar,” she wrote.
For years she brought her children to the library. That included her son, Edjuan, who spent days on end wandering the aisles, burying his head in the Harry Potter series, or hunkered down in the computer lab. But with Edjuan Wilson, who among family and friends was known as EJ, now gone, the mother of four can’t bring herself to their favorite spot.
“You know how people hang out at the mall or hang out on the beach or hang out in the park?” asked Helena, who sat at a table inside the main library at Concordia University Chicago in nearby River Forest. Her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, mouth covered by a black face mask, bearing her son’s initials – and rap name, A.I. – in red.
“I think we spent as much time – or more – in the [Oak Park] library than we did in the park, in the beach combined,” Helena said, her husband, Edwin, beside her.
Here, inside the university’s library, Helena settled into more memories of her children. Years ago, Helena was a student at Concordia, working on her degree while balancing motherhood. EJ and his siblings accompanied a young Helena on campus grounds.
Two months have passed since the couple lost their 21-year-old son. EJ, an Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate, was gunned down in mid-February after leaving a Subway in the city’s Austin neighborhood, immediately adjacent to Oak Park. Over the last few weeks, former classmates, community members and friends have rallied around the Wilson family. They held a vigil and a balloon release. They also gathered late last month at the site of EJ’s death, canvassing the area for clues to help with the investigation.
“It’s just a tragedy,” Edwin said, his eyes watering. “It’s hard to deal with at this point. I try to stay focused, but it just gets overwhelming. He was a good kid.”
When Helena and Edwin talk about EJ, they remember his smile, athleticism, outgoing personality and love for music. Helena said her son had a “glow” about him that went beyond first impressions.
They said their son was a product of the Pop Warner Little Scholars youth football program and later played the same sport in high school. EJ, who graduated from OPRF in 2019, was also on the basketball team, but those closest to him knew about his dreams of becoming a musician. In recent years, EJ was tucked away in the studio, perfecting his songs, Helena and Edwin said.
“He was elevating, and what turned out to be what I thought was a hobby was actually his passion,” Helena said.
Helena told Wednesday Journal she and her son often complemented each other. She took on the role of “critiquer” when EJ shared his songs, while he always encouraged her to step out of her comfort zone whether it was through dancing or doing other things. EJ was, Helena said, a mama’s boy.
Anthony Clark, a teacher at OPRF who sponsors the school’s hip hop club, recalled EJ as the student who sang in the hallways or stopped by his classroom to strike up conversations.
“He was so personable, had a great sense of humor and could communicate with anyone, could hold a conversation with anyone, make anyone laugh – annoy anyone in a good way,” said Clark, who met first met EJ in the hip hop club. “He was just a center of attention – and it was a good thing.”
“So many students looked up to him, followed him, whether it was in sports, in music, in life, he just drew you in. He just really drew you in,” Clark said.
Kevin Radzinski, director of the faith-based organization Young Life in Oak Park, echoed Clark and spoke about EJ’s ability to connect people together. Radzinski, who first met EJ when he was a high school sophomore, told Wednesday Journal a quick story about a young, “goofy” EJ and his friends at summer camp a few years ago.
Radzinski explained Young Life hosts an annual summer camping trip in Michigan and thought back to the time when he was woken up in the middle of the night by EJ and his friends. Radzinski said he could still picture the teenage boys huddled together, using his cellphone as a flashlight in the dark cabin.
“They’re just scheming, having some fun,” he said, laughing.
Radzinski said there was this other side of EJ that he and so many at Young Life saw. EJ was a leader who was unafraid of opening up and sharing his experiences as a Black teen, especially in Oak Park. Radzinski, who is white, said it was because of EJ that the Young Life chapter in Oak Park became more inclusive and pulled in more young people of color to the organization, as well as helped expand its mission to serve the community.
Helena said she was unaware of EJ’s role at Young Life and how instrumental he was in shaping the group. It was only after Helena attended the vigil at First Presbyterian Church in River Forest, where Young Life members gather, that she learned more about her son.
“You know how you don’t know certain things about your children? Well, that was a little known fact to me,” she said about EJ and his impact on Radzinski and Young Life.
Keon Gilbert, EJ’s childhood friend, remembered those weeklong summer camping trips. Gilbert, now 20 and a college junior, said one time, he and EJ went on one of those trips, leaving their girlfriends at home.
“We were trying to sneak out [of the cabin], meet up with some [other] girls in the woods, but it was hard to get outside,” Gilbert said, laughing. “So, we were just talking the whole night about how much we miss our girlfriends, how much time we got in life. That was my best friend for real.”
Throughout the interview, Gilbert continued to share anecdotes about EJ. He spoke about how his friend was naturally gifted, the type who “could pick up a skateboard and do a kick flip without even knowing how to skateboard.” Gilbert said EJ was the one who taught him how to box by showing him a couple moves, the one who taught him all the jokes and kept him up on the new slang.
“He was that person I thought I was going to grow old with,” said Gilbert, who to this day says EJ was his first friend in Oak Park, the first person who talked to him back in elementary school.
Back in the library at Concordia, Helena and Edwin revealed more memories about their son, with Edwin pausing every now and then, his eyes swelling up.
“He knew he was somebody,” Helena said. “No matter what you told him. He knew that he should walk around with his chin up.”
Hours after the interview, Helena sent a lengthy text message, rounding out her thoughts about her EJ and who he was as a man, a son, a brother and a friend.
In a poem, she summed it up: “Our son, our middle boy, our joy, our Edjuan. You glow …”