(Editor's note: first of two parts)
Nod your head if you have attended a musical event in Walker Theater at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium during the past two years. Now raise your hand if you know that the theater was named for Chattanooga Mayor Robert Kirk Walker Sr., an influential community leader who stepped forward to serve during one of Chattanooga's most challenging periods. His story is worth retelling.
Walker was a direct descendant of Revolutionary War patriot George Walker, who served as a captain with the North Carolina militia and by 1808 had moved west to Bledsoe County. Walker descendants have played prominent roles in Sequatchie Valley history for more than 200 years, and Robert Kirk Walker embraced the family's strong sense of duty through involvement in community service and professional leadership.
Walker was born in Jasper, Tennessee, in 1925. When he was only 4, his family moved to Chattanooga, where his father worked in construction until his death when Robert Kirk was only 10. At age 11, the younger Walker began working before school and on Saturdays to assist his mother, first as a grocery delivery boy and later with a second job as a newspaper carrier for the Chattanooga Times.
A disciplined student, Walker excelled at Ridgedale Elementary School and East Side Junior High before entering Central High School, where he became a student leader and honor student. Walker served as president of the Student Senate, edited the Central Digest, was chosen vice president of the Grady Literary Society, played the trumpet in the Central band, and was selected to attend Tennessee Boys State. He graduated fourth in a class of more than 400 and was voted "most dependable" by both the faculty and student body, a predictor of his future success.
Upon graduation, Walker enrolled at the University of the South at Sewanee in an accelerated Navy V-12 program, where he earned two and a half years of academic credit in 18 months. Commissioned an ensign in May 1945, he attended radar school, served aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer during World War II, and rose to lieutenant before being honorably discharged one year later.
Walker met his future wife, Joy Holt, in the eighth grade at East Side Junior High. While she attended City High, they remained close, marrying while Robert was based at Hollywood Beach with the Navy. In an interesting footnote to his military career, Walker was recalled to active duty during the Korean conflict.
Following the war, Walker enrolled in the University of Virginia's law school, where he completed the three-year course of study in two years, graduated in 1948 and promptly passed both the Virginia and Tennessee bar exams. The Walkers returned to Chattanooga, where Robert began working for American National Bank and Trust, specializing in tax work. Four months later, he was asked to join the law firm Strang, Fletcher and Carriger.
While committed to his legal career, Walker stepped forward to serve the community as an engaged volunteer. He joined the Optimist Club and within a few years had been elevated to lieutenant governor, 11th District, Optimist International. He chaired Optimist Youth Week in 1957, after having been named Optimist of the Year in 1956. But his involvement with the Optimist Club was only one facet of his service.
Robert was a member of the board of governors of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Law Enforcement Commission, an active participant in Chamber of Commerce and United Way campaigns, a leader in the Executive Board of the Cherokee Area Council, Boy Scouts of America, and a worker with the Estate Planning Council. His energy seemed boundless as he also served on the board of deacons and secretary of the finance committee at Central Baptist Church and as a trustee for Tennessee Temple College.
By 1963, Robert Kirk Walker had been elected first vice president of the Tennessee Bar Association, where he was tapped for leadership only two years later. In a statement to the media, Walker noted that "down through American history, lawyers have been in the vanguard of progress, the leaders of great causes and both the defenders and prosecutors of the accused." He mentioned with pride that the Chattanooga Bar Association had been instrumental in working toward the peaceful desegregation of public schools.
Robert Kirk Walker demonstrated his aptitude for leadership and service. In only a few years, that commitment to excellence would be called into play for the city.
Linda Moss Mines serves as Chattanooga and Hamilton County's historian and chairs the America 250 Celebration. For more on local history, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.