In 2001, Warner Robins Mayor Donald Walker was locked in a tough re-election campaign that turned into a landslide victory against then-state Rep. Pam Bohannon.
One of the knocks against him was the city’s amazing growth. Some felt Walker was letting developers run roughshod over the landscape, filling the city with strip malls.
This irked him, and he told The Telegraph so.
When Walker took office in 1994, he remembered, dinner out “came in a brown paper bag.” By 2001, a handful of chain restaurants had a foothold in the city, and an Outback Steakhouse had just opened up.
“I don’t know about you,” Walker said as he prepared to leave City Hall that night. “But I’m gonna go get me a damn Bloomin’ Onion.”
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After more than 15 years as mayor and countless interactions with the people of Warner Robins and Middle Georgia, it seems everyone has a story about Walker, 60, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound Monday. The Telegraph asked those who knew him — from family, to city officials, to average citizens — to share their stories of a man widely credited with guiding Warner Robins from small town to boom town.
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‘DONALD ANNEXED MY CAR’
Donald Walker was the middle son of three boys, and he acted like it.
He was “always right,” older brother Jay Walker said Friday. And he “always had to outdo me.”
When Jay got a 1968 Chevelle, Donald got a 1969 Camaro.
Before that, Donald learned a trick that would serve him well in his political career. Jay was drafted into the Army and ended up serving in Germany for 19 years. Jay had a Ford Fairlane, and obviously couldn’t take it with him.
So, “Donald annexed my car,” Jay said.
“He didn’t just learn about annexation (as mayor),” Jay said. “I got it back, but it wasn’t in the same condition.”
WORKING FOR WALKER
When Faye Coulter was tapped to be the mayor’s secretary in 1994, it wasn’t a job she jumped for joy over. She watched over the first few weeks of his tenure as he ran through five secretaries in rapid succession. She was sure her city career was over.
“I was scared. I was given no instructions,” she said. “I was sat down, told how to answer the phone, and I learned it from there. At the end of the day, I thought ‘Now I know why they’re not here.’
“What he would want, he would tell me. If I didn’t do it right, he would tell me,” Coulter said. “We took it a day at a time. I had no training whatsoever. I learned to take the messages, learned the way he wanted them, learned how he wanted his phone calls answered. I came over, and it was like ‘here’s your office.’ ’’
A TREASURE TO HER
Lucille Little, 70, recalled a mayor who helped get things done.
A Warner Robins resident since 1982, she approached Walker about adding sidewalks on King Drive where she lives. Shortly afterward, she said, her street got the sidewalks.
Later, she complained to the mayor about traffic on her street. Soon a four-way stop sign was placed on the intersection of King Drive and Ennis Avenue, Little said, out of breath and dabbing her eyes with a lace handkerchief.
“You ask nothing; you get nothing,” Little said the mayor told her.
Several weeks ago, Little wanted a Walker re-election sign for her yard. After trying to get one at City Hall, she found one near her home.
“It was sitting in the corner of the trash, and I took it out.” Little said.
The sign, still in her yard, is a treasure to her, she said.
“I will have it for the rest of my days,” Little said.
‘HE TOOK THE TIME’
City Councilman Clifford Holmes Jr. said while he has known Donald Walker since he moved to Warner Robins more than 40 years ago, they never really had a buddy-buddy relationship. But when Holmes called City Hall about vandals destroying his mailbox on several occasions, the mayor came running.
“Cars liked those mailboxes,” Holmes said. “On the fourth mailbox, I called City Hall and Mayor Walker came out. He said, ‘What do you want me to do, Clifford?’ I told him to put up one of those long metal things they’ve got on the interstate. That way, when they come by, it’ll stop the car.”
Walker couldn’t oblige.
“He said, ‘I can’t do that, Clifford.’ And I said to bring the material, I’ll put it up myself,” Holmes said. “But he took the time to come to me when I called for help. He didn’t send somebody to look at it. He came himself to see what it was. I’ve never forgotten that.”
GARBAGE AND DOGS
City Councilman John Williams said he approached Donald Walker when he first thought to run for City Council. Williams was good friends with Walker’s father, Homer J. Walker Jr., and knew Donald from birth.
At first, Williams didn’t really know whether Walker was giving him good advice or leading him astray.
“He said, ‘Well you know John, (running for City Council) might be a good thing. What you wanna campaign on is dogs and garbage,’ ’’ Williams recalled. “And he had that twinkle in his eye. I didn’t know what he was leading me off into, but it was deep waters, believe me. I did go in deep water on garbage and dogs.”
Williams won his seat easily.
‘HE LOOKED OUT FOR DADDY’
Donna Lewis-Heller, 53, of Warner Robins, said she remembers when a teenaged Donald Walker played sports with the Warner Robins Recreation Department.
Her father, Claude Lewis, known as the “father of T-ball” for inventing the sport in 1958, served as the department’s director for 30 years.
Lewis-Heller said her father and Walker’s father were contemporaries. Just as Homer J. Walker Jr. has the city’s civic center named after him, a Warner Robins American Little League field is named after her father, she said.
“His dad was the mayor when my dad was the recreation director,” Lewis-Heller said.
Lewis-Heller recalled a time when sewage backed up in her father’s yard the day after Christmas. She called the mayor and the utilities department to solve the problem. The same day, both showed up at Lewis’ home.
Walker also attended her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party, and her father and Walker shared a personal relationship.
“He was just so thoughtful,” she said. “He looked out for Daddy.”
‘I WAS THERE’
Warner Robins police Lt. John Lanneau, head of the criminalistics division, often drove the mayor to Northside High School games and other public appearances.
“John, you make me feel like I’m your date,” Lanneau recalled Walker telling him the first time he opened the door of his marked police car for the mayor.
Lanneau replied, “Mayor, you know I have to open the door for you.”
After that, it was a running joke between the two friends of 15 years. Lanneau said he would often open the door for Walker saying, “Mayor, I’m not opening the door because we’re dating. I’m opening the door for you because you are the mayor.”
Walker pushed Lanneau to get his master’s degree and encouraged him toward his doctorate.
“When my kids were born, he’d call me or send flowers,” Lanneau said.
The mayor liked to have people around him. He just liked to be a regular person, Lanneau said.
“When I was around him, we never talked about work,” Lanneau said. He recalled Walker telling him once, “What I like about you, John, is I can just be myself.”
Lanneau was with Walker in the ambulance and with him when he died in the emergency room at The Medical Center of Central Georgia.
“I don’t know if he knew I was there or not, but the main thing was ... I was there.”
‘HE GAVE TOO MUCH’
“He was gentle but firm,” Shirley Moody said of Walker. “Because of his firmness, (people) accepted what he said.”
Moody, a resident of Warner Robins since 1962, recalled a time when Walker’s manner served her and Warner Robins quite well. She and her husband, an airman at Robins Air Force Base, petitioned the mayor to build sidewalks in their neighborhood so they could go on walks.
“Sure enough, in about a week, there were sidewalks,” she said.
Sitting in the very back row of the Homer J. Walker Civic Center on Friday, Moody, now a widow, remembered the mayor as someone who “had his faults” but cared deeply about Warner Robins.
“I think he gave too much to the city,” she said.
‘A PIECE OF HER’
Candy Prince, owner of The Orchid House, and her staff fashioned a flower wreath of a hummingbird hovering over a flower arrangement for Walker’s viewing and funeral. She said she was touched when Walker and his brother, Jay, came to her mother’s funeral in 2004.
Her mother, Janette Mahaffey, told her she would come back to her as a hummingbird upon her death to comfort her.
“We’re giving him a piece of her,” Prince said of the hummingbird arrangement.
‘A VERY, VERY GOOD FRIEND’
Warner Robins police Lt. Lance Watson, head of narcotics, first got close to Walker playing softball on teams the mayor would sponsor out of his own pocket.
About a half-dozen of the resulting winning trophies are displayed at the entryway of City Hall, and more were in Walker’s office.
“It’s not just like a boss,” said Watson, blinking back tears. “He was a friend, a very, very good friend. I’m going to miss him.”
Walker gave Watson his 20-year service pin, the first he ever received for his years of service to the city.
“I do know he would want us to carry on,” Watson said. “Whoever fills that office, (Walker’s) going to want us to work hard. It’s the city that’s important.”
‘JUST COUNTRY FOLKS’
When Lucy Rigsby Sneed was a child, she lived in Walker’s trailer park near the home where Walker grew up. It was the same home Walker lived in with his wife, Patricia, as mayor.
Sneed said Walker used to drive up alongside her as she rode her bicycle. He would always ask her how she was doing and tell her to be safe riding her bike.
Walker’s mother, Marian, was her teacher and often scolded her for cutting class, Sneed said. The last time Sneed saw the mayor, she had to joke with him about where she was working. For all the times she skipped school, she is now a baker at Centerville Elementary School and is there every weekday when school is in session.
“He’d give you words of wisdom and really lift you up,” said Sneed, wiping away tears. “He was a good man.”
She added with a smile, “He was just country folks — just as ordinary as the rest of us.”
‘ONE OF THE BEST MAYORS’
Like a lot of people who knew Donald Walker the boy and Donald Walker the young man, former state Rep. Sonny Watson wasn’t sure what to expect from Donald Walker the mayor.
Sure, Watson voted for Walker back in 1994. But he couldn’t help but worry about the long-haired, borderline hippie Walker had become when he came home from the Army.
“He was like all of us, you know,” Watson remembered Friday after Walker’s funeral. “He was kind of mischievous. ... He kind of got on the wild side.
“When he was elected mayor, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen to Warner Robins?’ ’’ Watson said. “Lo and behold, he’s made one of the best mayors we’ve ever had.”
Telegraph writers Andrea Castillo, Thomas L. Day, Travis Fain, Becky Purser and Marlon A. Walker contributed to this story.