POSTED: April 24th 2012
MIKE MORAN: Dr. LeRoy Walker Is Gone, But Not The Memories Of This Extraordinary Man
MIKE MORAN / The Sports Corp
Somewhere now in the light and shadows of eternity, there is a terrific reunion going on tonight among some of America’s greatest track and field athletes, like Jesse Owens, Lee Calhoun, Wilma Rudolph and Willye White. And, they are greeting a newcomer.
LeRoy Tashreau Walker, coach, educator and friend, is with them now, having departed life as we know it yesterday at the age of 93 in hospice care in North Carolina.
Dr. Walker’s death will bring heartache and tears to many in America’s Olympic family, but along with those, will come a flood tide of extraordinary memories and experiences for hundreds who had the chance to know him, work with him, or hear him.
The first memory that jumped into my mind today after hearing of his death was a hot July morning in Atlanta in 1996, a week after the Opening Ceremony of the Centennial Olympic Games.
Doc, as the first black President of the United States Olympic Committee, had led the 654 members of the American team into the Olympic Stadium as millions watched. Here he was, born in Atlanta in 1918, the grandson of slaves and the youngest of 13 children, returning to his hometown as the leader of the most powerful Olympic Team on the planet, for an evening capped by the lighting of the Olympic flame by American icon Muhammd Ali.
I was walking along a pathway near the big stadium with Dr. Walker, a film crew, and NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, and Tom was chatting with the USOC President.
Brokaw was interviewing Walker for his special segment “An American Dream,” which featured the lives and moments of unique, special Americans who had realized a dream beyond the usual, and getting there under difficulties and challenges.
LeRoy Walker’s American Dream was one to inspire, and Brokaw’s piece on Nightly News was poignant and a testimony to Doc’s courage and dogged determination to succeed.
Born on June 14, 1918, in Atlanta, he was taken to Harlem at the age of nine by his brother, Joe, after his father, a railroad fireman, died. According to historical writings, he worked in Joe’s barbeque restaurants and window cleaning business to earn money during the Great Depression.
He came back to Georgia for his final year of high school, and despite not playing football because of his small size, he won a scholarship to Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, where he eventually became a quarterback after going out for football on a dare. He led Benedict to a league title and was named as an All-American by the Pittsburgh Courier. He was also a star basketball player and became a track and field sprinter. The school retired his Number 11 jersey when he entered the Hall of Fame.
Then came a Masters Degree from Columbia and a Doctorate from NYU, but that was only the beginning for this superb Olympic leader and champion of kids and athletes.
Another Olympic hero who passed away not long ago, the eminent Games filmmaker and story teller Bud Greenspan, once said of Walker, “Dr. Leroy Walker is an Icon. As an athlete, coach, and educator, he has influenced thousands to not only enter the athletic arena, but the arena of life. It has been written ‘Ask not for victory; ask for courage. For if you can endure, you bring honor to us all.’ Bud added, “ Dr. Walker has brought honor to us all.”
LeRoy Walker was a master of bringing people together and to make issues disappear. He got along with almost everyone he met, and he charmed the toughest of those he encountered, like former USOC Vice-President and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. At every USOC meeting the two endured, Steinbrenner was the first to meet Walker with a bear hug and a joke.
In 1992 when Walker was selected as the USOC’s 23rd President, I wanted to take him around the country to meet some major writers, editors and broadcasters, to sort of introduce him, as I did all of the organization’s Presidents and chief executives.
I wanted to try to take him first to Chicago and arrange a meeting for him with the legendary African-American publishing executive, Robert Johnson, the founder of the influential Ebony and Jet Magazines, which had a huge readership nationally.
So, I tried to make connection with Johnson in Chicago, but had difficulty reaching him at first. I did book meetings at the Chicago Tribune and made the travel details.
When I called Doc Walker to let him know what I had set up, I told him about trying to get a session with Johnson and that I hadn’t had success.
“Bob Johnson?” he said. “Heck, let me call him, we go way back.”
He did, and we had the meeting.
On the morning we prepared to leave the Palmer House hotel for the meeting, Walker was on the curb with a young woman who was engaged in a chat with him. When I walked up, Walker introduced me to Marlene Owens Rankin, one of Jesse Owens’ daughters. She is the executive director of the Jesse Owens Foundation.
It was always like this with us. Go anywhere with LeRoy, and you met the most amazing people, and they came from a multitude of worlds and occupations.
He had a great sense of humor and a way with words.
At a USOC meeting one time in Washington, he tried to reconvene after a long lunch, and it was becoming tough. The attendees took their time being seated and were still chatting and making noise when the USOC President startled them by banging his gavel on the podium, next to the microphone.
“What am I, the President of a cemetery,”? Walker shouted. “I feel like I’m over a thousand folks, and nobody’s listening.” Order was restored quickly.
I also saw him at the most stressful times within the USOC. Like in Lillehammer in 1994 when we were struggling with what to do about the skater Tonya Harding in the aftermath of the famous attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan. We did not have all the facts, and we were trying to reach some sort of decision about her coming to the Games.
Walker was there, not long after major knee surgery on both sides, and he was not feeling well, and was tired. But late one night, we managed to come to an agreement to let her skate, facing a lawsuit and a lack of evidence, coupled with our inability to have a hearing in Norway. His voice was one of the strongest in the room, and right or wrong, he was heard.
He started a furor in Barcelona in 1992 when he criticized the NBA “Dream Team” which had been a major problem at the Games for the USOC, related to which outfits they would wear, how they were received and more.
But we had managed to get it under control by the medal ceremony, with a large dose of acrimony.
But at the final press briefing, Walker, no fan of the collection of hoop legends, said he didn’t care if they ever came back. "I am not convinced yet we had to have NBA players on our team," Walker said. "With all the college players we have in the country, if we chose the right ones, we can still win.
"We have professionals on the team, that's fine. We have professional skiers and others, and they're no problem. But they should all follow the same rules as everyone else. If they don't want to and aren't here the next time, I wouldn't care."
This man was the U.S. Olympic track and field coach in 1976 at Montreal, America’s first black Olympic track head coach. He was the track coach at other Games for Israel, Ethiopia, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica and Kenya. He became the track coach at North Carolina Central, and later the institution’s Chancellor.
He coached 11 NCCU athletes to Olympic Medals, like Calhoun, and produced 30 national champions and 80 All-Americans. He was inducted into 14 Halls of Fame and ended up in the best one, the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
Oh, there was much more, the Presidency of AAHPERD, a member of the first Knight Commission, and a big role in the huge success of the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
In a way, his story is as inspiring as the life and times of Jesse Owens, a rich mixture of hardship, determination, success, inspiration and the unique ability to challenge athletes and leaders to excel when they seemed bent on failure.
He dispensed love and affection to all of us who served the USOC, and he was on the other end of countless late-night phone calls from my home when I struggled with a crisis or a controversy. He always had a way to make it seem nothing more than too much starch in your Sunday shirt.
Seeing him again, for many of us, was always like going home at Christmas. Rest in peace, Doc.
Mike Moran begins his 46th year in sports communications in 2012. He was the Sports Information Director at Nebraska-Omaha and the University of Colorado before becoming the chief spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee for a quarter century, through thirteen Games, from Lake Placid to Salt Lake City. He joined the USOC in 1978 as it left New York City for Colorado Springs. He was the Senior Communications Counselor for NYC2012, New York City’s Olympic bid group from 2003-2005 and is now a media consultant and works with the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation. www.coloradospringssports.org. His opinions are his own. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information contact:
Laura Walden ()
All original materials contained in this section are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Sports Features Communications, Inc the owner of that content. It is prohibited to alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content.