Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker (far right) served as chief of staff to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from 1960-64.
Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker is remembered by historians as a civil rights icon who served as chief of staff for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., volunteered as a Freedom Rider, was arrested and jailed in 1960 after entering through the “whites only’’ entrance of the Petersburg Public Library, and helped supervise the 1994 election that resulted in Nelson Mandela becoming South Africa’s first post-apartheid president.
Dr. Walker’s towering legacy will be honored Friday at 10 a.m., when Chesterfield holds a ceremony dedicating the future Enon Library building in his name.
But to the person who knew him best, his wife Theresa Ann, Wyatt Tee Walker was a man who “loved people” and “wanted to help everyone” – even if it meant stretching his family’s budget to the breaking point at times.
“He was always bringing people home for dinner,” Theresa Ann Walker recalled during a recent telephone conversation from her home in Chester, where she still resides nearly four years after her husband’s death at age 88.
Raising four young children on a minister’s meager salary, the Walkers had no extra money to feed frequent dinner guests. After advising Dr. Walker of this fact on multiple occasions, to no avail, Theresa Ann decided it was finally time for a demonstration.
During trips to the grocery store, Theresa Ann typically bought enough for family dinners so that Dr. Walker received two pieces of meat, while she and the children had one apiece. On this occasion, however, she purposely gave his second piece to their guest – so everyone at the table had one – and waited for him to notice.
“That sort of slowed him down [regarding the frequency of his dinner invitations],” Theresa Ann said with a laugh, “but it didn’t stop him.”
Nothing could. A 6-handicap on the golf course who was equally handy with a bowling ball and a pool cue, Dr. Walker also was an excellent swimmer and became an avid boater later in life – when the Walkers relocated from New York to Chester following his 2004 retirement as senior pastor at Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church of Christ.
“He enjoyed life to the fullest,” Theresa Ann said, noting his two “great loves” were his family and being pastor of a church.
After earning his Master of Divinity degree from Virginia Union University’s School of Religion in 1953, Dr. Walker accepted a position as minister at Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg. He was named senior pastor of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in 1967 and served in that post for 37 years.
“He considered everyone in the congregation part of his family,” Theresa Ann said. “He had a photographic memory – he knew everybody and called them all by name."
He also was a voracious reader who amassed vast library collections both at home and the church. For that reason, having his name on a Chesterfield library building will be particularly meaningful to his family.
“He loved excellence and I know he’d want it to be world-class, the best library in the area,” Theresa Ann added. “If it bears his name, it’s got to be.”
The digitized "Dr. and Mrs. Wyatt T. Walker Collection of papers and memorabilia is held with the University of Richmond's Boatwright Memorial Library.