Hundreds say farewell to LeRoy Walker

jstancill@newsobserver.comMay 1, 2012 

— His grandchildren called him Papa. Olympians he mentored called him Doc. And though he was a Ph.D., a university chancellor and president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, most people called him Coach.

And that’s just how he liked it.

Hundreds gathered at Duke Chapel on Tuesday to bid farewell to LeRoy Walker, the legendary track and field coach who died last week at 93. The funeral drew mourners from all over the nation – Olympians, coaches, politicians, family and friends.

The one-and-a-half-hour event was fitting for a man who had gained international stature during a 60-year career. At the service, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield read a letter from President and Mrs. Obama. Outside the stately chapel, a horse-drawn glass caisson waited to take Walker’s casket to burial.

A former N.C. Central University coach, educator and chancellor, Walker went on to coach the U.S. Track & Field team at the 1976 Olympics and was the first African American president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, from 1992 to 1996.

He was remembered as a man with an easy smile, a positive outlook and a way of bringing out the best in people.

“He had a passion for excellence,” said NCCU Chancellor Charlie Nelms. “Anything less was unacceptable. His rallying cry was short but powerful. Three powerful words: ‘excellence without excuse.’”

Walker’s record was all about excellence. He coached 111 All Americans, 40 national champions and 12 Olympians.

The presiding minister at the funeral, the Rev. Harmon Smith, described Walker as a “shepherd” who led and protected athletes, especially during travels through the segregated South decades ago.

George Williams, track coach at St. Augustine’s College, said somehow he always expected Walker to be there “to take care of us.”

“I thought he would be here forever, really,” Williams said. “Everything we do is Dr. Walker. Every championship we win is Dr. Walker’s championship.”

Harvey Glance, a gold medalist in the 4X100 meter relay in the Montreal Olympics, drove from Alabama to pay his respects to Walker.

“He was more than just a coach,” said Glance, who went on to coach at Auburn University and the University of Alabama. “When I first got my coaching job, he mentored me through all kinds of tough times. ... He was very significant in developing me to do great things and have people believe in me.”

‘You didn’t want to disappoint’

Walker inspired his athletes long after he coached them. In the late 1980s, Walker approached Glance and told him he was disappointed in him for never completing his college degree.

“Of course, that coming from Doc was like a knife being stabbed 3,700 times, because you didn’t want to disappoint Doc,” Glance said. “.So immediately, two weeks later I enrolled back at school. I was only one semester away from finishing, and got my degree.”

Another of Walker’s track stars was Herman Frazier, now associate athletics director at Syracuse University. Frazier won gold in the 4X400 meter relay, and a bronze in the 400 meter.

He described Walker as a genius and “a citizen of the universe.”

The venerable coach could be tough. Frazier remembers the Olympic training camp before the 1976 Olympics.

“I mean, it was brutal, but he knew what we needed to be successful,” Frazier said. “And when you’re at the top of the podium, it’s hard to argue with that success.”

UNC women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell dug through her closet Tuesday to find a small USA Basketball pin that Walker had given her. She wore it on her lapel.

When her team won the national championship in 1994, Walker presented her players with Olympic jackets as a gesture of congratulations.

“He treated everyone special, yes he did,” she said. “He didn’t care what age you were, what race you were, what country you were from, he just treated everyone special.”

A citizen of the world

Though he was a beloved Durham resident most of his life, mourners described him as a citizen of the world and a “one-man diplomatic mission.” He coached athletes and teams from Israel, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Italy and Kenya, as well as the United States.

“He was one of the most admired and respected leaders in the worldwide Olympic movement for four decades,” said William Hybl Jr., president emeritus of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “He embodied the principles of Olympic ideals throughout his life as an educator, coach, father and role model, for achievement and for overcoming barriers.”

When the Atlanta-born Walker led the U.S. team into the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic games, Hybl said, it was a triumphant scene.

“He was the son of Atlanta, coming home 78 years later as the leader of the most powerful team on earth. It was a moment that no one could forget.”

Tuesday’s farewell was another unforgettable moment.

Three open limos billowed with flowers. Behind them, as Walker’s casket was loaded into the glass coach, mourners took photos with their cell phones or bowed their heads in prayer.

As the caisson started its slow journey across Durham, two members of NCCU’s track team jogged in front of the horses. They carried a torch, the same one used in the 1996 games. Its flame flickered in the May sunshine.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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