About dark-thirty, I was coming into Athens. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the farm supply store’s sign. The lights were on, so I wheeled around. I needed a few things to fix a fence.
In the parking lot, he saw me first and walked over. “Hey, I’m Walt Whitaker,” he said. “I haven’t seen you in years.”
“Hey, Walt,” I said. “Yes, it’s been a long time. Logan Equipment, right?”
And that’s how this it’s-a-small-world conversation launched.
Walt grew up in Palatka, Fla., where we publish the Palatka Daily News. “When I was a kid, I delivered your newspaper,” he said. Well, it wasn’t our newspaper back in 1951, but 10-year-old Walt earned a dollar a week delivering 64 papers. His little brother, Herb, pocketed 50 cents for tossing his 45 copies of the News.
The brothers gave half of their weekly incomes to help their mom with expenses. Walt and Herb’s dad, Ross, was sick in the Veterans Hospital in Lake City. Their mom, Willene, was making $35 a week working for the chamber of commerce.
Jack Frost doesn’t bite too hard in Northeast Florida, but Walt remembers his mother fretting about her boys not having warm coats. She took them to Ben Franklin’s 5&10 to see what they could afford. The jackets weren’t much more than sweatshirts, but Walt paid $2 for his, and Herb pulled $1 out of his dungarees to pay for his. Leaning on the fender of my truck, Walt said, “Mom broke down and cried. I didn’t know we were poor until I left home.”
“Walt,” I said, “yours is a story I want to hear. Let’s visit more.” We exchanged telephone numbers, waved goodbye and I ducked into the store before they locked the door.
Months go by before Walt and I are picking up where we left off. Over plates of barbecue, he said junior college was his first stop after high school. The following year, he transferred to the University of Florida in Gainesville. To earn his 1965 agriculture degree, he paid his way—all the way—waiting tables and working as a night watchman.
Right away, the Pillsbury Company offered him a job. The draft board had a job for him, too, possibly in Vietnam. When a slot opened in the National Guard, Walt got to work for Uncle Sam and Pillsbury. The upside was that he was soon a 26-year-old national sales manager in the poultry division, overseeing $1 million a week in sales. The downside was the Whitakers were freezing and miserable in Minnesota. Walt, his wife, Cindy, and their sons Robert, Scott and Wayne came south to Athens, so he could be the national sales manager for Central Soya, and his family could thaw.
Central Soya wasn’t a good fit. He tried real estate. The market flopped. Next, he went to Logan Equipment, managing it for 23 years. That’s where Walt and I met. When the paving enterprise was sold, Logan closed its equipment division. Walt, 60, was unemployed for 13 months, before joining Athens Hardware. Now 74, he works just two days a week.
But over our lunch visit, I learned about the big transition in Walt’s life. “I was saved at 35,” he said. And since 1985, he’s been answering a calling as a volunteer chaplain at the Athens-Clarke County Correctional Institute. With the help of others, he says, “We’ve saved 3,000 inmates and 45 correctional officers in 31 years.”
“Give me an example,” I said.
Walt told me about Chester, who is 80. The convicted murderer couldn’t read or write. For five and one-half years, Walt and his cohorts worked with Chester, who is now reading the Bible. “I’ve resigned 1,000 times, but the Lord always calls me back,” Walt said. Now he preaches once a month in the prison’s chapel with Billy Thomason, Lonnie Johnson, Doug Mattox and volunteers from Temple Baptist filling in.
Walt is itching to write a book. “After 31 years,” he said, “I am ready to break the silence about our ministry, and my motto is ‘To God Be the Glory.’”
Now, I’m glad I doubled-back to the farm supply store and reconnected with Walt. One of the things that I love most about people is that there is a story in every life.