LeRoy Walker was a man of Olympian achievement

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Olympic legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee with Dr. LeRoy Walker in 2005.

Olympic legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee with Dr. LeRoy Walker in 2005. (Roslan Rahman / July 4, 2005)

And, truth be told, the scenario that has brought Walker to this point is nearly mythic.

The grandson of slaves, he was the youngest of 13 children and the first in his family to attend college. His father, a railroad fireman, died when Walker was 9. To lighten the burden on his mother, Walker moved to Harlem to live and work with his brother Joe, 25 years older, who owned barbecue restaurants and a cleaning business.

"My mother and Joe told me, 'You determine your destiny. Don't let somebody else tell you what you are capable of doing,' " Walker said.

Walker was recruited to play football, basketball and track at Benedict College in South Carolina. He thought of being an orthopedic surgeon, but circumstances led him first to a coaching job at Benedict.

He moved on briefly to Prairie View A & M and then, in 1945, to North Carolina Central, spending the next four decades there as coach, physical education and kinesiology teacher and university administrator. Among the Olympic athletes Walker coached at NCCU was two-time hurdles gold medalist Lee Calhoun. Of the hundreds he coached, Walker said, fewer than 12 did not graduate on time.

"That was because we had two daily practices, and the second one was in the library," Walker said.

"He was the toughest teacher I ever had," Foster said. "I remember my first assignment in his Physical Education for the Exceptional Student class: He had me create a table-tennis match for the blind."

Walker challenged himself similarly, taking breaks from NCCU to earn a master's degree in biomechanics from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from New York University. Walker switched from one graduate school to another after learning a professor at Columbia had questioned the ability of a black man to do the work.

Given that history and his later efforts to ensure integration of athletics, it seems ironic Walker twice would be criticized for not being militant enough. The first came when he did not actively support the black protest at the 1968 Olympics; the second, when he postponed retirement after being chosen interim chancellor of North Carolina Central over two others recommended by the school's trustees.

"I hope," Walker said, "that my being chosen the first black president of the USOC gives some credence to what I have always said: In spite of all the things that might have happened to you, in spite of the problems your parents might have had, you have to believe there are enough fair people in this world that you can achieve a top position on general merit.

"My theme at the university was excellence without excuse and shared responsibility."

In his first year as NCCU chancellor, Walker refused to accept the prevailing excuse that until students paid their debts, the university could not give them actual diplomas during the graduation ceremony. He issued each graduate the diploma and set the mood for a three-year term as chancellor that would be widely judged as a success.

"My father sticks to his convictions," Leroy Walker Jr. said.

That was evident at the recent Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, where Walker was chief of the U.S. delegation, a job known as chef de mission.

In an interview with the New York Times, he questioned the very idea of a "Dream Team" of pro basketball players with just one collegian and lamented they were not spending more time in the Olympic Village.

In an interview with the Tribune, he called (some) U.S. athletes "crybabies" for making excuses about defeat.

"I'm not against pros; you can't disenfranchise an entire group, pros or collegians," Walker said last week. "And I don't care where they live, but I would like to see them get more out of the Olympic experience. Medals and elite athletes are not all the Games are about."


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