The way Don Walston tells it, it was the Godfather of Soul who inspired him to start giving out turkeys about a decade ago.
He was riding in his car, singing along to hits from previous decades on the radio, when he heard that singer James Brown had died. He also heard that Brown had for years distributed turkeys to needy families in his hometown of Augusta, Ga., during the holidays.
Walston, who is founder and chairman of the Raleigh real estate firm Coldwell Banker Howard Perry and Walston, figured he could do the same. He started out making his own donation and asking his friends to do the same. The first year, they passed out 300 turkeys to local people who might not otherwise have been able to afford holiday turkeys.
Since then, the effort has grown. The company established a charitable arm that has raised more than $1 million for Turkeys for the Triangle and donations to other groups such as Habitat for Humanity and Meals on Wheels.
Last week, amid blaring pop music, representatives of Walston’s company loaded 1,500 turkeys into a line of cars that would carry them to shelters and churches and nonprofits – and ultimately to people’s tables.
The group is planning another distribution in December that will bring the total number of turkeys to 4,000. In its history, Turkeys for the Triangle has provided more than 24,000 turkeys.
Walston is a well-known figure in local real estate circles. Coldwell Banker Howard Perry and Walston is a real estate and development firm that has 14 offices across the region and reported sales of more than $2.4 billion in 2015.
Beyond his business acumen, Walston is known for his lively sense of humor, love of music and generosity. Brace Boone, director of development for the Raleigh Rescue Mission, says Walston’s dedication to the cause has made a huge difference at his organization.
“His heart is definitely in the right place,” Boone says.
The mission received 120 turkeys this year. They’ll be used for Thanksgiving dinner at the mission’s homeless shelter and in the meals delivered to 800 people throughout the community as part of its “Gobble to Go” program for homebound residents.
Boone says on a practical level, any donated food helps preserve the mission’s budget for other programs. But, he says, the show of kindness means nearly as much.
“That goodwill and the feeling behind this is transferred onto the recipients,” says Boone. “There are a lot of smiling faces when we deliver these meals.”
Walston grew up in Wilson, the youngest son of a single mother and nurse who worked hard, kept firm discipline in the household and pushed her sons to succeed. He credits her no-nonsense parenting for keeping him in line.
“She was a strong lady,” says Walston. “Later, when I was successful, she would tell me, ‘You turned out a whole lot better than I ever thought you would.’ ”
Walston says his talents were somewhat overshadowed by his older brother, who was 12 years older, bright and well-spoken.
“He spoke the English language extremely well,” says Walston, “and I killed it.”
While he wasn’t a strong student, Walston says he learned a lot in sports. He played all kinds of sports as a child, and settled on football as he got older, learning lessons of teamwork and perseverance on the field and from his coaches.
He played center and linebacker and distinguished himself with determination. Early in his career, he had five teeth knocked out but finished the play, he says.
“I was one of those guys that wasn’t the fastest, wasn’t the best, but I never gave up,” he says. “And that’s how I run my business today.”
The sport led him to Elon University, but he never finished. Instead, he joined the U.S. Army. It was during the Vietnam War, but he was sent to Germany to play on the football team and run the gym during the off season.
When he came back, he got into real estate, building his own business. In 1973, he merged his business with Triangle-based builder Howard Perry. A decade later, he bought out Perry’s interest in the company.
The company deals in commercial and residential real estate and building statewide and beyond, and has grown steadily over the years. It has about 1,000 employees.
He says his business philosophy involves empowering his employees, encouraging them to express their opinions and move forward as a team, whether decisions go their way or not.
He also brings lighthearted touches to the job, like his trademark brightly colored socks and his habit of banging drumsticks on cardboard boxes and singing as he walks around the office.
His employees also all participate in the Turkeys for the Triangle Program, selling tickets to a raffle that includes prizes such as a yearlong lease on a Lexus, tickets to sporting events and gift cards to area businesses.
Walston says the idea seemed like a no-brainer after his James Brown-inspired revelation.
“I said, ‘You know, what have I done lately?’ ” he recalls. “So I started this.”
But as is his wont in many things, he immediately wanted to do more. He started lining up friends to donate, he says, by telling, not asking.
“I’d tell them to get the check ready because I’m coming by to get it,” he says.
Once the foundation was started, the program expanded. For the past two years, Butterball has donated 1,500 turkeys to the effort.
On Wednesday, Walston was there to greet the carpool of people coming through to pick up turkeys. Some represented shelters or nonprofits; others were agents from other offices who took the turkeys to recipients in their area.
Matt Horton, president of the Howard Perry Walston Foundation, the company’s charitable giving arm, says agents are charged with raising money and identifying recipients of the birds in their communities.
“We have people putting turkeys up on the wall to show what they’ve sold,” he says. “It’s about bragging rights and a cause you can feel good about.”
Other organizations include the Raleigh Rescue Mission and the U.S. Veteran’s Corps, which had representatives on hand to load turkeys Wednesday.
In a suit jacket and pants with orange-striped socks visible beneath, Walston was there to greet the many groups picking up the turkeys.
“Of all the things I do, it gives me the greatest pleasure,” he says.
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Born: October 1941, Farmville
Career: Founder and chairman, Coldwell Banker Howard Perry and Walston
Education: Studied at Elon University
Family: Four children, five grandchildren
Fun fact: Walston’s love of singing is legendary, but he pauses when asked if he has a pleasant singing voice. “I can carry a tune,” he says. Behind him, several employees shake their heads, indicating the contrary.
Want to help?
Turkeys for the Triangle raffle tickets may be purchased for $5, or 5 for $20 for 5, at www.TurkeysfortheTriangle.com.