She wore sunglasses to hide the tears, as the navy-gowned Jordan High School seniors filed into the arena.
Other parents were crying too, but Doreen Hemphill’s tears were not of joy.
Her son’s father and her ex-husband, Tony Hemphill, stood next to her with a somber look on his face.
On a chair in front of the students getting ready to graduate lay Tyreic Hemphill’s photo, with the cap and gown and navy blue and yellow honor cords he would have worn if he had been graduating.
“We were looking forward to this moment,” Doreen Hemphill said. “We worked for this moment to get here, and he’s not here.”
Tyreic Hemphill, 16, died in September in a two-car crash on N.C. 55 near Riddle Road.
His parents created a scholarship in his name, raising $15,000, and in May gave $2,000 each to three graduating seniors. The rest of the money will go to three more students next year and the tradition will continue.
But it was not the same, they said, because their son was supposed to be the one getting scholarship money and going to college.
“It’s always going to be a struggle to deal with a child’s death,” Tony Hemphill said. “And for us to lose our son at a vital time at the stage he was in his life, it was really hard for us.”
Walking the stage
Doreen, the owner of a child-care service, and Tony Hemphill, a school suspension coordinator for Durham Public Schools, walked across the stage to accept Tyreic’s diploma.
With hearts pounding, they managed to put smiles on their faces. The student body and their parents in Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium rose to give them a round of applause.
Together they walked back behind stage to collect themselves.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Doreen Hemphill said, her voice cracking. “It’s like all his friends are graduating, but he’s not there.”
She paused, then said, “But he’s smiling down, I guess.”
Tony Hemphill agreed. He pointed to the sky at Tyreic.
“He’s proud of us,” he said. “I was proud to do it for him, as he would have been proud to walk that high school stage.
“But we wish our son was here getting his own high school diploma.”
An honor student
Tyreic Hemphill was an honor student, in the top 10 percent of his class. The youngest of two kids, he wanted to go to Howard University in Washington, D.C., study business and become an engineer. He wanted to start his own business and be his own boss someday.
“As soon as we walked on (Howard’s campus), he said, ‘Mommy, this is it. This is it,’” Doreen Hemphill said.
“I was saying I did not want him to go, but then he gave me all the reasons he should go, and I thought ‘he’s right. I have to let him go.’ It was like I was starting to let him go and be a young man.”
It was raining the day he died. Tyreic was on his way to his mother’s house as he crossed the median and his Honda Civic was struck by an oncoming driver. Firefighters got him out of the car, but he died at the hospital. The other driver survived.
The other driver said he saw Tyreic try to turn but his car did not move.
No alcohol or speeding was involved. The police ruled it as an accident.
“He was just beginning his life,” Doreen Hemphill said. “It’s never going to be better. You’ll just have to learn how to do things a different way without him being there. Because sometimes I find myself getting ready to call him.”
Both parents say they found a little comfort in honoring their son.
They chose to create a scholarship in his honor to help students who can’t afford to pay for school themselves.
“Tyreic Hemphill was an exceptional student and leader at Jordan,” said Jim Key, DPS area superintendent for high schools. “We are grateful that his family has chosen to memorialize him by helping other high-achieving students achieve his dream.”
With the help of Jordan High School and the Emily K Center, which serves academically-focused, low-income students in out-of-school programming, they raised $15,000 in five months.
“The idea came about right after he passed,” Doreen Hemphill said. “We were just thinking of ways to keep his memory and legacy alive.”
Fifteen people applied.
The criteria for the Tyreic E. Hemphill Memorial Scholarship Fund included having above a 3.0 GPA, performing community service and exemplifying characteristics that Tyreic had. Applicants had to have two recommendations and write a 500-word essay.
“He was easy-going. He was kind-hearted, stubborn to me but with other people he was all right,” his mother said. “He was down-to earth. He was his own person and didn’t follow what other people did.”
The original plan was to give a $5,000 scholarship to just one person but the applications were so good the Hemphills decided to split it three ways.
Daria Selezneva of Riverside, Millicent Blivin of Jordan High, and Jermani Elise of Clement Early College won the scholarships, because they possessed those qualities, the parents said.
“He was an amazing kid,” Tony Hemphill said.
“He was picked especially for us to do the things we are going to do now,” Doreen Hemphill said.