We met while working together on an education committee in 1998. He was famous in my hometown, an Olympic track and field coach and the first black president of the United States Olympic Committee; I was in awe. I was a local middle school teacher, and he thought I was funny. Not to be outdone walking back from lunch to our committee meeting one day, he told a joke and gave me that trademark grin. I ran the length of the sidewalk and did a handspring in front of the UNC School of Education's Peabody Hall. Later, he would tell me that was the moment he knew we would be friends.
We would go to lunch, an unlikely dining couple: me, a mid-career white teacher laughing at the black Chancellor Emeritus twice my age at the University Club where he always took me. (We got some stares.) He would tell me stories of his early days, what it was like to be the baby of thirteen children, and his days in Harlem where he went to live with his brother after his father died. He talked about his years as an athlete and an award-winning coach, and his eyes would gloss over when he spoke of his wife Katherine, who died in 1978. I had little to offer in the way of comparable stories so I told him about my students. Many times he helped me understand how to reach a troubled one or laughed with me over a funny classroom story.
I was honored when he presented me with a signed copy of his biography, An Olympic Journey: The Saga of an American Hero. He also gave me a United States Olympic Committee medallion, something I cherish to this day.
My friend, Dr. LeRoy T. Walker, the man of so many accomplishments and so many stories, died yesterday. It took me an entire day to summon up the courage to open the book he gave me and read his inscription:
I owe a debt of gratitude to the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program for bringing us together. It was a pleasure to work with you. Congratulations on your honor as an outstanding teacher and educator. Your school is fortunate to utilize your special skills this academic year.
With every good wish for continued success in all of your endeavors, I remain
Dr. Walker, so many, including me, owe a debt of gratitude to you. The consummate teacher, coach, instructor, and educator, you have touched thousands. We will miss you.
Say hello to Katherine for us.