WEST RIDGE — Frances “Fran” Walker played the piano every day growing up in suburban Downers Grove, practicing scales and songs using a metronome.
About 10 years after Arnold Walker last saw his sister practicing at home, he watched her play as a featured soloist in a show. There, he heard Fran Walker’s graceful mastery of a piano’s keys without the ridged clicking of a metronome and was left astounded, he said.
“I had thought of her as a mechanical, a competent piano player. But when I heard her recital, it was beautiful because she was playing with feeling,” Arnold Walker said.
Fran Walker, 69, was killed last week inside the West Ridge home she had converted into a boarding house with several tenants. Police and prosecutors say Sandra Kolalou killed Walker and dismembered her body after Walker gave her an eviction notice.
Kolalou, 36, was ordered held without bond last week on charges of first-degree murder and concealing a homicide.
Walker’s family launched a Facebook fundraiser Thursday to help cover the cost of her funeral and cremation. It’s raised $18,884 from 239 people as of Wednesday morning.
As the family mourns, they are also sharing memories of their sister, who parlayed her musical talents into playing piano and organ all over the North Side and at the Evanston School of Ballet.
“And I’ll tell you, when she learned to play the organ, that was really her passion. She was really good,” Arnold Walker said.
Fran Walker was born on the Fourth of July in 1953, one of seven children, Arnold Walker said.
Siblings Pete, Fran and Arnold Walker were about three years apart and thought of themselves as the “three stooges,” often getting into capers together, Arnold Walker said.
“I felt that I was Curly, that one was getting picked on all the time. Pete was Moe, the one who instigates everything. And Fran was in the middle,” Arnold Walker said.
The Walkers thinks one of the reasons Fran developed a love for music was all the marching band songs that would accompany firework shows during her birthday when she was growing up, Arnold Walker said.
“She was a firecracker baby and liked marches,” Arnold Walker said.
One Christmas, Jerry Walker, the youngest brother, was looking for something to get his sister for Christmas. He knew she loved classical music and played the piano, he said.
When Jerry Walker dropped by the Downers Grove Public Library, he saw a bin of used books and records for sale. He peeked inside and saw a complete set of Beethoven’s symphonies on vinyl, he said.
“It had no scratches. No skips. I wrapped it up, and when she opened it up Christmas morning, she hit the roof with happiness,” Jerry Walker said. “I was maybe 10 years old and was happy I could get her something that maybe most adults wouldn’t think to get.”
Another influence was Walker’s musician father, Charles Robert Walker, who could play the cornet and French horn, Arnold Walker said. When the kids would play in the nearby woods, their father would grab his cornet and play a tune to summon them for dinner, Arnold Walker said.
Charles Robert Walker wanted one of his sons to follow in his footsteps and play the cornet, but it was Fran Walker who had the most interest in picking up the instrument, Arnold Walker said.
“He played in the Lamont band and was musical,” Arnold Walker said. “That’s how she first showed her musical slant: She started on the cornet, and he was happy to support Fran.”
After graduating from Downers Grove South High School, Walker attended the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, where she got her bachelor of arts in piano performance. She later got her master’s of fine arts in piano performance from Northwestern University.
As a child, Walker also learned one of her ancestors had fought in the Civil War. She’d grab a broomstick, pretend it was an old rifle and proceed to march around the neighborhood, Arnold Walker said. Other times, she’d write about the “war” in her journal, which she called the “Sergeant Frances Walker Journal,” he said.
During Walker’s Civil War fantasies, she’d often recruited Arnold Walker to march with her as a private, he said.
Walker also liked helping her mother around the house and would recruit Arnold Walker to pretend they were mythological brownies while performing chores in the dead of night around the house, he said.
“The brownies did work in the middle of the night, and she’d have us get up real early so we could help. We’d just mysteriously do all this housework and help mom,” Arnold Walker said. “It was a little bit kind of sneaky, but that was what seemed to be what she wanted to do. She was always very dutiful.”
Walker’s oldest brother, Stan Walker, has developmental disabilities, and she would often visit and check up on him, her family said.
Walker also cared for her first husband, Thomas Sternick, when his health started to fail, Arnold Walker said. Needing help to look after him, she hired Hristo Mantchev as a live-in caregiver, her brother said.
“Hristo was there for her and took really good care of Tom,” Arnold Walker said.
After Sternick died, Walker and Mantchev kept in touch and married in 2012, the family said.
“You can see how a bond, a romantic bond, could happen. He helped her emotionally by being there for her,” Arnold Walker said. “And you know they’ve both spent their lives, one way or another, serving other people.”
The couple traveled to Mantchev’s hometown in Bulgaria and often split their time between Chicago and Europe, her family said. Her husband was overseas working on the “fixer-upper” home the couple had bought for their retirement when he learned his wife was killed, family said.
Mantchev is expected to return to Chicago this week as the family prepares for Walker’s services, family said.
“Fran really took care of people like our brother Stan. Taking care of people, that’s the kind of giving person she was. She was always doing things for the community,” Jerry Walker said.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.