Monday, May 31, 2010

Remembering Wally Hickel

"They Got Old Wally," read the caption on the wonderful political cartoon by Wright in the The Miami Daily News. The animals of the forest were lamenting the firing of Secretary of the Interior, Walter J. Hickel, by President Nixon. About the same time as the shooting of the students at Kent State, the secretary had written a letter to the President, expressing his concern for his five sons and his opposition to the Viet Nam war. Before the letter got to the President's desk, it was leaked to The Washington Star by a member of the Interior staff. Wally assured us that he meant it to be "eyes only to the President."

I am able to post that cartoon on my blog, because the pack rat I live with saves everything that is and was memorable and historic. We have always loved that cartoon and felt it was telling in so many ways. Today, we only have to change the caption to:

"Godspeed Wally. We are glad we knew you."

President Nixon sent Ron to the Department of Interior to help Wally get organized. Their friendship was one of mutual trust and admiration. Almost as soon as Ron arrived at Interior, the late Frankie Hewitt, executive director of Ford's Theater, approached him with a plea to help her save the historic Theater. It was on it's way to becoming a morbid museum to a murdered, martyred President. Frankie envisioned keeping it as President Lincoln enjoyed it, a living and vibrant theater. Ron talked to Wally about it. They agreed to help and Ford's Theater is alive and thriving today because of their involvement. Years later, that same Frankie Hewitt, now sporting the title of Fords Theater's Artistic Director, gave the Lincoln Medal jointly to Ron and Wally for helping to make sure Ford's Theater would continue to present live theater and be such an important part of our Nation's Capitol heritage. If you have a chance, be sure to visit the museum in Ford's Theater. It was recently re-designed by Richard Norton Smith. It tells the historic story of the famous theater in a way that is informative, wonderful and quite a work of art.

Wally and Ron traveled extensively during the time they worked together. One especially memorable trip was to Micronesia. It was the first time a Secretary of the Interior had visited the region. Ron, used to the ways of Presidential campaigns, arranged with the hotel to have all of the Hickel's telephone calls routed through him. The first morning, Ermalee, Wally's wife, called early to place their room service breakfast order. Ron, not wanting to embarrass Mrs. Hickel, did his best to sound like a hotel employee, and then got dressed and went to the kitchen to pass along the request. Years later, when he finally told Ermalee what had really happened that morning, they had a good laugh. Ever since then they have made a point of talking and laughing about it again and again. Ron's impersonation of the room service order taker is what makes the story so hilarious, so writing it on a blog does not do it justice. Sorry about that.

Here's the Secretary with some of the children of his staff members. Our three daughters are there; Lisa is in the white headband, Marja is second on his right and Lynne got the place of honor on Wally's lap. Note the two-page frame under the lamp. That's how President Nixon's daily schedule was framed on his desk and Ron made sure that the Secretary of the Interior had the very same schedule holder. Wally loved it.

Because he was fired, the President and Wally did not speak for several years. When the President was going to be meeting with Japanese Emperor Hirohito in Anchorage, Ron made arrangements for the Hickel's to host the President and Mrs. Nixon at a dinner in their home. Ron says he is proud and very glad that he was able to bring the two men together once again.

When President Nixon appointed Ron to be Director of the National Park Service, the two men had even more to talk about. Wally was always a wise and welcome confidant.

Years afterward, Ron would often go salmon fishing in Alaska with his pal Homer Luther. Their fishing camp, Enchanted Lake, was very remote and Ron would usually overnight coming and going, at the Anchorage Hotel Wally owned, The Captain Cook. This meant the old friends could have dinner and enjoy spending some time together.

Walter J. Hickel was a two time governor of the State of Alaska, a mover and a shaker for awhile in Washington, DC, and a one-of-a kind great guy. He took a practical view of the conflicts between the environmentalist and the oil companies. He was against locking up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He used the settlement money from the Exxon Valdez oil spill to help repair Prince William Sound.

In 1969, the first year of Wally's Secretaryship, the oil spill took place in Santa Barbara, California. Union Oil was the culprit that time. Wally wanted to make sure they did everything possible to clean up the mess. He asked Dick Kleindiest, then deputy attorney general, to do some research and see exactly who was legally responsible. They found a 1867 law that stated that the entity causing the leak was responsible to clean it up. Wally was on the beaches of Santa Barbara almost immediately. Taking names and directing traffic.

Wish he could talk to us today about what is going on in the Gulf Coast and the efforts of BP to stem the damage. He definitely would have strong opinions and we need his wise counsel and leadership.

On this Memorial Day, especially, we think of our heros and pause to offer our thanks and remember their service to our Nation. Yea, they got old Wally, but we got to have him for awhile. Weren't we lucky!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Walker Cup

No, not THAT Walker Cup. Every golfer knows about THAT Walker Cup. George Herbert Walker, a man famous for being quite a golfer, was President of the USGA in 1920 and donated the trophy. Later, that Walker would become even more famous because of this relationship to two United States Presidents. The winners, either from Europe or the United States, have enjoyed bragging rights for winning the prestigious trophy ever since.

The younger Walker Cup was donated to the Kodaikanal International School in India, by Ron Walker, in 1957, in honor of the memory of his godfather, Mario Di Georgio.

Mario was a beloved teacher at Kodai. He mentored a student each year and Ron, then called "Tex" by his classmates, was his last. Mario, had been a concert violinist, an air raid warden in Burma during the Japanese invasion, a physical fitness expert and a lover of all nature and God's creatures. Mario was also the music teacher and choir director at Kodai, and he conducted wonderful concerts each year. Looking back on why Mario singled out Ron, we think he saw the amazing potential in a kid, yanked away from the Texas lifestyle, especially sports, that he loved and plunked down on the other side of the earth, in a foreign place, and having to live apart and far away from his parents.

He was only 13 years old when he arrived at the boarding school in the very remote hill country of India. To travel from his parents home in Hyderabad, to Kodai School, required a plane ride to Madras, a bus ride to a hotel to get two rickshaws, one for him and one for his luggage. The rickshaw would take him to the train station for the overnight trip and then finally arriving at the hill station where he could catch a bus for the 4 hour ride up the mountain to the school.

Mario spent lots of holidays at the Walkers home in Hyderabad. Ron's parents were the first ones who began calling Mario, his godfather. The honorary title speaks volumes for the influence and caring that Mario brought to the young student. He was both a mentor and a spiritual advisor.

During Ron's senior year, 1956, Mario became ill with phlebitis, and probably other health issues, and went to the American missionary hospital in Vellore on at least two different occasions. The faculty urged Ron to visit him. He traveled by 3rd class train, leaving Kodai on a Friday afternoon and arriving in Vellore the next morning. He spent several hours with Mario. Ron remembers that they both cried when they said goodbye. Mario died a short time later.

It was a difficult time for a young man. As a small token of how much he cherished his time with Mario, Ron saved all of his letters and has them to this day. The Walker family, wanting to do something to honor Mario's memory, decided to recognize a student each year with a trophy to highlight their musical achievements.

Ron had a cup engraved and hand carried it to Kodai when he went from the University of Arizona during the summer of 1957, to visit his parents who were then living in Baghdad, Iraq.

Now, you knew there would be a "Nixon Connection" to the story, and here it is: President Nixon visited India in the summer of 1969 and Ron Walker was the advance man handling the stop. It was a memorable summer. Neil Armstrong made the giant leap for mankind on the moon, Teddy Kennedy drove off a one-lane bridge in Chappaquiddick and the Manson murders took place in California. During the trip, the President sent word that he wanted to meet with Yahya Khan, the President of Pakistan. He insisted the meeting be one-on-one, meaning no other aides were to be present. Henry Kissinger's people and everyone at the State Department were beside themselves. The folks at the embassy were aghast. Nobody wanted to be excluded, but the private meeting took place and the "Yahya Channel" made it possible for the President to begin planning his historic trip to the People's Republic of China.

While Ron was in India doing the advance, he had a few issues with his counterpart on Prime Minister Indira Ghandi's staff. They were relatively small, but potential roadblocks for each side that didn't want to give away more control than they had to. One Indian person in particular, made asides to his people, speaking in Hindi, not realizing Ron understood what he was saying. It was usually along the lines of, "we probably don't have to worry, this guy is too young and too inexperienced to have much clout with the White House. We will get our way on this."

The day everything changed was the day Ron had a meeting with the Prime Minister. He greeted her in her native language and delighted in watching the cantankerous aide realize he'd been had. The Americans were soon given the green light on several key points as they had originally hoped.

Our daughter, Lynne Walker McNees, traveled to India recently in her role as President of the International Spa Association (ISPA). After her meetings in Mumbai (Bombay when Ron was in school) she and former ISPA Board Chair, Jane Segerberg, traveled to Kodai. Jane, always looking for an exotic place to hike, was intrigued with the unique destination. Lynne was blown away by the emotion and history of discovering a place where her father spent his high school years. Ron and I sent a donation with Lynne for her to present to the school. This was when we found out that the "Walker Cup" was still a prestigious part of student life at Kodaikanal International School. This years recipient of the Cup asked about its history and was told the current faculty didn't know too much about it. Shazam! In walks Lynne, one of those Walkers, and the information began to flow from her Dad, over the Internet to fill in the blanks at the school in the hills of India. How amazing is the timing of events in our lives! For this one it is Fifty-three years later.

Mario would be so proud. So proud of the adult Ron has become and all he has accomplished, and also proud that he, Mario, is still a traditional and important part of student life at Kodai International School.