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The Walkers: Joni and Don

We lost an extraordinary man Easter weekend, who some described as saint-like and others described as one of the kindest human beings they had ever encountered. 

I am speaking of Don Walker, our Willow Flat neighbor for 50 years and dedicated husband of my dear friend, mentor and confidant, Joni Walker.

I met Don in 1968 when I first started dating my future husband and, on occasion, visited the Yasui family on Massee Grade Road. The Walkers’ house was directly across this winding country road, which allowed for frequent conversations around the shared mailbox stand on the corner.

One weekend, my future mother-in-law, Mikie Yasui, sent me next door with a plate of freshly-baked cookies for the Walkers, then a family with three small children. While it seemed to be an innocent neighborly gesture, I later learned that I was set up by my mother-in-law, who wanted me to meet this very special couple and become a part of their extended family. I can honestly say that cookie delivery changed my life, for it marked the beginning of a wonderful relationship with the entire Walker clan.

In 1969, Flip and I began remodeling our home, a small house located a few hundred yards down the road from the Walkers. Don was the go-to man for learning how to re-roof, wire and remodel the cabin that Flip’s aunt and uncle lived in before and after their incarceration in the Japanese internment camps during World War II. We were young and clueless about some of the carpentry work we assumed we could do, like adding a bedroom to the little yellow house, when our two young children out grew the crib and dresser drawer in which they slept. We did not have the luxury of home improvement channels or YouTube demonstration videos to guide us. I know some can’t even imagine the dark ages in which we lived.

The addition seemed straightforward, adding two right angle walls that would square off the utility room and kitchen, forming a cozy bedroom for the children. I had meticulously drawn the floor-plan of the addition on graph paper, where it appeared to be any easy project.  Unfortunately, I had given nary a thought as to how the roof or walls would tie in to the current structure.

One sunny day, I was toiling outside the house with a 20-foot measuring tape, trying to draw a straight line along the wall to lay a level foundation. Don stopped by to visit, a frequent occurrence if he was downwind of a good apple pie, and noted my dilemma. I was surprised when he didn’t offer to help, but instead took off down the driveway. A few minutes later, he returned with a chalk line in hand, noting that the right tool for the job would make the addition run much smoother. I had never seen a chalk line, but it certainly worked wonders.

Don seemed to have a bounty of tools in his garage and basement and was always willing to share them, as well as instruct you in their use. They were worn smooth from years of construction, helping Don build five homes and remodel a half dozen others for friends and family. The wooden handle of his hammer and saw were stained a dark reddish brown, which I later learned came from Don’s blood, sweat and tears. Many have mentioned that Don was prone to injuries. He seldom completed a project without making a donation of one bodily fluid or another. Yet, he wore his stitches and bandages with great aplomb, like a red badge of courage signifying the completion of a new deck or freshly shingled roof. On the other hand, Don’s ladder skills were significantly challenged and ultimately would lead to his demise. Yet, he could climb a telephone pole with only his lineman spiked boots or scramble up cliffs in search of a deer or elk with nary a misstep.

Don was always busy with one project or another, indoors and out, living the scripture, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” There were bathrooms and kitchens to remodel, playhouses, barns and fences to build sandwiched between church, little league, scouts, 4-H, family, school functions and full-time work.

Don’s schedule left little room for forgetfulness. But when Don forgot something, it was epic. Only Don would leave his youngest son, then age 3, on the Parkdale Little League bleachers in his haste to load the ball team into the car and return them to their own homes. Fortunately, we were in a less “uptight” era, when an adult could simply drop a toddler off at the concession stand, rightfully assuming someone would ultimately return to pick up their little bundle of joy. I must admit, I too have forgotten items, like where I parked my car or left my car keys. But I have never left one of my babies on the ball field bleachers. Not yet, anyway.

As Eric Walker mentioned in the beautiful eulogy written for his father, Don was not a patient man. He was always on the move. You could get one foot into “Old Blue,” the trusted family pickup truck, and he would take off, leaving you frantically hopping on the other foot as you attempted to throw yourself into the speeding vehicle. Riding shotgun with Don was always an adventure. Eric recounted Don had not only backed over his hunting rifle on two different occasions, but had actually driven over Eric’s foot in his haste a couple of years ago.

Many an adventure was had in “Old Blue.” Don was always transporting lumber from Tum-A-Lum to Odell for yet another project, seldom finding time to tie the load down. Supplies were often scattered along Highway 35, a trail of breadcrumbs to the next project. This was such a common occurrence that neighbors and occasionally law enforcement would refer to any building supplies along the roadside as “Don’s droppings.” It’s no wonder he had to enlist the Knights of Columbus in litter pickup on that stretch of highway. It was probably a coverup for finding lost tools or building supplies that never made it to a worksite.

One year, I was helping Joni wallpaper the new house Don had built for the family. It seemed to take us a long time, but we were enjoying visiting and taking multiple coffee breaks throughout the day. Don would check in periodically to see how far we had progressed. While never critical, he would chuckle a little and tell us how many rooms he would have completed in that amount of time.

As Eric shared, Don was not a “measure twice, cut once” sort of builder, so wallpaper hanging would have been right up his ally. Perhaps lack of that trait also accounted for his multiple trips to Tum-A- Lum.

Don genuinely cared for people from every walk of life. His compassion knew no bounds. When Flip’s young cousin, Dag, moved in with our family after the loss of both his mom and dad, Don became a father figure to the little lost boy. He joined the extended Walker family, sharing camping and scouting trips. When classmates of Scott, Debbie, Chris or Eric struggled in school or sports, Don was there to help guide them to a successful future. When members of the church sought a safe place to stay or a shoulder to cry on, Don was always there. He was never too busy to lend a helping hand. 

Don usually gave great advice. I recall his remarks to Flip when our son, Corey, an all-state football player and varsity baseball player, chose to take up golf his senior year. Don said, “You know, Flip, he probably won’t play baseball in a few years, but he can golf all the rest of his life.” It is counsel I have taken to heart when my children or grandchildren took a path that diverged from the one I might have chosen for them. 

If it wasn’t for his uncanny sense of humor, one might think Don was a saint. He relished in a good devilish prank, if it involved his beloved wife, good friends or children. Don and Bernie Wells loved to surprise their spouses by planning a trip to an unknown destination, and then springing the trip on their unsuspecting wives the night before the plane would take off.

Don also loved dressing up to attend a momentous event. In particular, I recall a bridal shower the group put on for Bernie and Carol. I don’t know why the photos from the party were not shared in the memorial tribute, because it involved a style show featuring Don, Bernie and Lee Curtis in seductive negligees for the couple’s wedding night. Their evening attire was fashionably accessorized by an assortment of very hairy legs.

Don lived life to the fullest. He gave completely of himself to his faith, his family, his friends and community.

He was a humble, decent man with a heart as big as his smile. Our family has truly been blessed to have him in our lives for half a century. We will continue to reap the rewards of his legacy of kindness and service that lives on in his wife Joni, all his children, grandchildren and extended family.

Thank you, Don, and all the Walker clan.

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