Walter Walker’s name hadn’t appeared in The Commercial Appeal in a long time – so long that it’s hard to remember that he was once one of the people whose presence gave us so much hope for Memphis’ future.
His obituary was in today’s editions.
Those who met him in the past couple of decades knew him as an inspirational figure who always found a broader purpose for his life and worked for full rights and better services for the disabled. Even after his life was turned upside down by a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis only three years after he moved to Memphis to take up the presidency of Lemoyne-Owen College in 1974, he soldiered on – with the help of his equally impressive wife, Sonia.
In a reversal of the great migration that took so many African-Americans of the South to Chicago, Dr. Walker left Chicago to move to Memphis. There, he was a vice-president of the University of Chicago, a position that was regularly the launching pad for academicians who could name their position and their price.
For Dr. Walker, however, that position was in Memphis, where his brand of leadership resulted in positive national publicity for the small, historically black college. Such was Dr. Walker’s success that it seems that the college has been looking for a leader of that caliber ever since.
After arriving in Memphis, Dr. Walker became an immediate impact player, leading so many efforts to end racial division, to address institutional racism and to prepare his new hometown for the future.
Still reeling from the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. six years earlier, Memphis was mortally wounded. Downtown was boarded up, businesses were fleeing eastward and the national media considered the decline of Memphis as a foregone conclusion.
Immediately upon his arrival, it became clear that he was exactly the kind of leader that Memphis needed at that exact moment in its history. Over the next decade, it was hard to find any progressive project and any program that unified people of good will that did not have Dr. Walker as a key force in its work.
When he took the reins in Lemoyne-Owen College, it was widely expected that he would remain in Memphis for only a short time, such was the trajectory predicted for his career. And yet, his personal style and philosophy seemed to find its perfect home in Memphis, and for a dozen years, he would lead Lemoyne-Owen College in impressive directions, using the school as a vehicle for moving our city ahead and motivate the birth of a new generation of leaders.
It would have been understandable if Dr. Walker had been bitter and if he had looked back upon his life largely in terms of missed opportunities and detoured by his disease. But this was not his style, nor his belief.
Whatever life threw at him, Walter Walker found a way to serve others – whether in a board chair or in a wheelchair – and he leaves a better world than he found. It’s hard to imagine a legacy more profound.