A while ago, Joseph L. Rich gave me a call and suggested I join him and one of his close friends for lunch.
T. Urling “Tom” Walker is a legend in the community, he said, but how he got here from his boyhood — which Joe described as something resembling the exploits of Huckleberry Finn — and how he developed roots here, is an interesting tale in itself worth telling.
So I met Joe and Tom at The Grille at Hilton Garden Inn in Watertown. Tom, after parking his car, was his witty and affable self and also welcomed Joe’s invitation.
The lunch with the two Shapiro Award-winning citizens was interrupted a few times by people who stopped at our table to offer greetings to the pair.
“Anybody can walk up to Tom Walker and say, ‘Hi Tom.’ And Tom is so welcoming,” said Joe, founder and former executive director of the Disabled Persons Action Organization and now the president of the DPAO Foundation.
“Anybody who buys me lunch, I like!” Tom, 96, responded.
It was a wild ride of a conversation with Tom, ranging from recollections of a riverboat adventure in his free-ranging youth to now, and what he sees as his legacy. In between was his WW II service and thoughts on first coming to Watertown.
His most visible public role was as mayor of Watertown. Elected to two four-year terms (1983-91), he stressed the need for a proactive city government. He was also interim city manager from September 1994 to December, 1995.
But along with his wife Mabel, who died last December, he became a luminary in the community, with their community service and generous donations to various causes.
Tom was born Jan. 31, 1925 at the regal-sounding Homeopathic Medical and Surgical Hospital and Dispensary in Highland Park, a neighborhood in the northeastern part of Pittsburgh. In 1938, the facility changed its name to Shadyshide Hospital.
“As I look back on my parents now, they were just outstanding,” he said. “We got our normal amount of discipline. My dad would look at me if something was wrong, and that’s all I needed. The only time he gave me a little switching was when I’d be fighting with my brother.”
As a boy, he said, he had the latitude to go wherever, which at times caused concern for his parents, Thomas A. and Clara Urling Walker. For example, he recalled his first few days of kindergarten.
On the first day of kindergarten, his dad arrived to pick him up at the end of the day.
“The next day he brought me in, came back to pick me up, and I wasn’t there,” Tom said.
He had walked home.
“I said, ‘Dad, I know how to get there. It’s no big deal.’”
Tom, in his youth, was an Eagle Scout, wrestled, played sandlot baseball and street hockey, on roller skates. He mentioned a rather odd pastime popular at the time in his hometown involving horse chestnuts. Kids would drill a hole in one of the nuts and place a string through it. “And I’d go out and say, ‘Challenge me!’” Tom said.
He explained the game: “If you knocked somebody’s chestnut off their string, you would acquire the number of points he won. I don’t know if they ever did that up here, but we did it there because we had a lot of nuts — human and otherwise.”
In 1941, he and a buddy, George Spangler, made a boat in Tom’s cellar. But they had to earn the $20 for its lumber.
“We sold a lot of paper, broken glass and metals and we finally got enough to go to the lumber yard and talk to the owner,” he said.
About a year after they made the boat, they rowed it to Baden in Beaver County, Pa., where Tom had a relative. By road, the distance is about 25 miles. After leaving the Allegheny River, they rowed northwest on the Ohio River to their destination. Along the way, they had a too-close encounter with a paddle-wheeled river boat and they camped out on an island for nearly three days.
A year before or after that trip, (Tom can’t recall), he and his buddy rode their bicycles to a relative’s home in Washington, D.C. They were allowed to after they promised they’d write to their parents every night.
“So we got penny post cards, pre-addressed and a sharp pencil.”
They camped out along the way.
“In the evening, instead of going to a tourist home, we went out into the woods and pitched an old World War I pup tent,” Tom said. “I had $17 in my pocket and I put $34 up the handle bar. When the trip was over, I had $10 left. Those were the days.”
I wondered what happened to George Spangler.
“He went into engineering like I did, and he ended up down south,” Tom said. His buddy, who like Tom, served in the Army Air Corps, died in March of 2005.
‘sort of a late bloomer’
Despite joining the faculty of Jefferson Community College in 1961 as an associate professor of engineering, Tom said he struggled in his early days with math and geometry at his Peabody High School in Pittsburgh. He recalled a particular theorem he struggled with until he locked himself in a room to figure it out.
“I went all through that thing,” he said. “I went to class. The teacher said, ‘Walker, go to the black board!’ A hush came over the whole class. They knew I just didn’t know how to put all this stuff together. But I went to the board, picked up the chalk, went all the way through the thing — the therefore and the conclusion — and put the chalk down. It was as quiet as a mouse.”
The silence was broken when his teacher told him: ‘Walker, that was a good job and you’re just going to pass, that’s all.’”
Reflecting on the experience, he said, “I guess it’s like anything else. I see kids who are having trouble. They need a second chance because sometimes they’re late bloomers. I guess I consider myself sort of a late bloomer.”
After graduating high school, Tom joined the Army Air Corps. and its 22nd Bomb Group, 3rd Squadron. He was mostly stationed at New Guinea.
“They analyzed me not as a hot shot pilot, but as a good mechanic,” he said.
He served from 1943 to 1946, repairing B-24 bombers and became a crew chief at age 19. The planes bombed Japanese airfields, shipping and oil installations.
“I had probably the best job in the Army,” Tom said. “I was in a combat zone for almost two years and never saw the enemy.”
After his military service, he attended Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., one of the oldest academic institutions in the U.S. In 1947, while at that all-male school, a friend asked him to attend a dance at a nearby nursing school as part of a double date. That’s where nursing student Mabel Brooks first saw him. Mrs. Walker received her nursing diploma from Allegheny General Hospital, Pittsburgh, and in 1951 Mr. Walker transferred from Washington and Jefferson to the Case Institute of Technology, now Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. They married on Sept. 25, 1948.
Tom transferred from Washington to Jefferson Institute of Technology (now Case Reserve University) in Cleveland, receiving his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1951.
While completing his studies, Mr. Walker worked as the headwaiter in the faculty dining room. There, in an accident that would prove serendipitous, he spilled a bowl of soup on Wilson Watkins, an executive who had come down from Watertown.
“My little finger caught his cup and I dumped his soup all down in front of him; the neck tie, the whole works. I cleaned up and told him to send me the bill.”
Wilson not only forgave him, but eventually interviewed him for a job at New York Air Brake in Watertown. When Tom came up for an interview at the company, Wilson picked him up at the Watertown train station.
But he had to transfer trains at Utica to get here. He got to that city at 3 a.m.
“I said, ‘If Watertown is anything like this, I’m going back.’”
Mabel didn’t join him for the interview. “She said, ‘If you go up there, I’ll go with you.’”
When offered the job, they discussed the move.
“We looked at it and said we liked the community, we like the weather, because I’m a northerner,” Tom said. “The cold and snow don’t bother me at all. In fact, I like it better than summer.”
Tom started his career at Air Brake in 1951 as an executive-in-training.
“It was a good deal, and looking back on it, it was good experience because I could work in any department they put me in,” Tom said.
He and Mabel first moved to an apartment on Sherman Street. They then bought a home on South Indiana Avenue before moving to their long-time residence on Ives Street.
In 1962, Tom took a job as math teacher at Case Junior High School. A year later, he was hired as associate professor of engineering at JCC.
volunteering and giving
Together, the couple would influence the direction of scores of academic, community, cultural, medical and municipal organizations in the north country with funding and by volunteering.
They had four children, two of which would die of cancer: Wendy died in 1971 at the age of 16. Constance L. Walker Monroe died in 1987 at the age of 37.
The Walkers made significant financial contributions to fight cancer in the community. The House of the Good Samaritan’s cancer center was renamed The Walker Cancer Treatment Center in 1992 and in 2018, the new Walker Center for Cancer Care at Samaritan Medical Center was introduced. In addition to investing in those facilities, Mabel was instrumental in the founding of Hospice of Jefferson County.
The Walker family offers three scholarships at Jefferson Community College: the Walker Family Engineering Scholarship, the Winifred G. Walker Nursing Memorial Scholarship and the Constance Walker Monroe Liberal Arts Memorial Scholarship.
To list the total causes of what Tom and Mabel took up and what they have donated to would be an exhausting exercise. But for an example, let’s go back about 40 years ago — after which time their generosity and service to the community only continued. Tom and Mabel each received the Israel A. Shapiro Citizenship Award, one of the highest honors for community service in the area, in 1982 and 1989, respectively. Tom was cited for his chairmanship of a quarter-million-dollar fund drive for the Jefferson County Historical Society museum, his leadership in the merger that formed the Seaway Valley Boy Scout Council, his work to keep the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra coming to Watertown and his efforts as vice president of the Watertown Alive Committee and co-chairman of the finance committee of the Local Development Corporation of Jefferson County. He also has served as executive secretary of the Watertown Foundation Inc., now the Northern New York Community Foundation, has been chairman of fundraising drives for Samaritan Medical Center and the Watertown Family YMCA, and was treasurer and founder of Tree Watertown.
Mabel received the award for her work as past president and board member of the Visiting Nurses Association and president of Hospice of Jefferson County. She also was involved with Planned Parenthood of Northern New York, the Red Cross and the Disabled Persons Action Organization.
Independently wealthy, Tom comes from a family of steel industrialists who made a fortune in Pittsburgh during the city’s boom years. He added that his dad had a knack for the stock market.
“My dad was a pretty good investor in his later years,” Tom said. “He was lousy at real estate. But he was able to see a good change in the market. When the downturn came in 1929, he had invested heavily in IBM.”
According to IBM archives, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, IBM managed to grow while the rest of the U.S. economy floundered.
“So he did pretty well,” Tom said of his dad. “I think we’re still surviving on some of that investment.”
Asked about his legacy, Tom said he likes to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit with his donations.
“I like to give it while I’m still living when I can see it working and I can see where some needs are needed,” he said.
‘Up and around’
Recently, I had heard that Tom spent some time at Samaritan Medical Center, so I called him to see how he was doing.
“I developed a blood clot on my lungs, and I couldn’t breathe very well,” Tom, once again sounding his robust self, said last week. “So they put me in the hospital for about four days, stuck me full of needles, gave me some thinner and I’m up and around now.”
He added, “It’s one of those good days, bad days sort of things. I think all people with age get that. You think you’re never going to make it to the next day and the next day comes and you don’t feel so bad.”
On the day I called, he said it began as a bad day.
“But it looks like it’s going to be a pretty fair day today,” he said. “I had a little lunch, just got in and sat down at my desk.”
Later, he told visiting Times photographer Kara Dry that his desk was once owned by city mayor George Walton Flower, the first mayor of Watertown, from 1869-1871. It’s another weathered connection to another time for Tom, a multifaceted man who has also repaired and collected clocks as a hobby. And time, it seems, remains on his side.
“Sunday Portrait” is an occasional column featured in the Watertown Daily Times’ Sunday edition. Contact Chris Brock at firstname.lastname@example.org.