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Charlotte woman’s quest to hear her father’s voice persists

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/14/17/24/BOSK8.Em.138.jpeg|316
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
    Charlotte mom Leigh Ann Young, 45, has been on a quest since 2011 to find an audio recording of her father’s voice. When she was almost 3, Verlon “Rube” Walker died of leukemia. Young cradles a portrait of herself at 16 months old, sitting on her dad’s lap in 1969 at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/14/17/24/jEoE.Em.138.jpeg|402
    - COURTESY OF LEIGH ANN YOUNG
    Verlon “Rube” Walker enjoys a moment with his daughter, Leigh Ann, in 1969 at Wrigley Field. Rube Walker, of Lenoir, was an assistant coach with the Chicago Cubs until his death in 1971. Leigh Ann Young doesn’t remember her father at all and says what she would like most is to hear his voice.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/14/17/24/1kLbVh.Em.138.jpeg|403
    - COURTESY OF LEIGH ANN YOUNG
    Verlon “Rube” Walker holds his daughter, Leigh Ann, in 1969 at Wrigley Field. His wife, Ann, smiles in the background. Walker was an assistant coach with the Chicago Cubs at the time. He died in 1971 of leukemia soon before Leigh Ann’s third birthday.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/14/17/24/RRd5T.Em.138.jpeg|473
    - COURTESY OF ELLEN M. REED
    Leigh Ann Young, right, stands with her family. From left is 12-year-old Walker, husband, Dennis, and 6-year-old Christopher. Young has been on a search to find out more about her father, who died when she was a toddler. The family lives in Charlotte.

The lucky among us take our father’s voice for granted.

We can hear it on this Father’s Day by calling out to him in the next room, or calling him on the phone or calling it up from our memory. We would know that voice anywhere.

Leigh Ann Walker Young, a Charlotte wife and mother, doesn’t know that voice. Her father, a baseball coach for the Chicago Cubs, died of leukemia in 1971 at 42.

She went to his funeral one week, then to her third birthday party the next. But she doesn’t remember him at all.

What she would like most is to hear his voice. She has longed for it. She believes it would help fill a vacuum.

“Even if you’ve lost your father,” she said, “you can probably close your eyes and hear him tell you something in your head. I don’t have any of that.”

That’s why Young, 45, has been trying to find a recording of Verlon “Rube” Walker. Since 2011, she has made countless phone calls and email inquiries, and started a blog about her quest.

Although her father was interviewed many times by radio reporters, she has yet to find a recording.

But she has started to find something else.

Peace.

As she talks to more and more people who knew her father, she has begun to understand what kind of man he was. The hole in her heart has begun to fill in.

“People who played for him and coached with him have shared with me so many memories that they had of him,” Young said. “He’s become more than just a flat person to me, someone frozen on a page in a picture. I’ve gotten to know his personality and his sense of humor. It’s like laying flesh and blood on top of bone. To me, he’s becoming real.”

‘Just a good guy’

Verlon “Rube” Walker was born in 1929 and raised in Lenoir, the second of three baseball-playing brothers growing up in the Depression. Both parents worked at a local cotton mill. His father would sometimes wrap leftover string from the mill around golf balls until they were the size of baseballs, then wrap those with black tape. Those became the Walkers’ homemade baseballs.

“They were dirt poor,” Young said of her father’s family, “and he was probably destined for a life in the mills or a factory. Baseball gave my dad a way out of that life. He really didn’t have a backup plan.”

Walker is sometimes confused with his older brother, Albert, who was also nicknamed “Rube.” He was a catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, backing up future hall of famer Roy Campanella for much of his 11-year career. His claim to fame: He was behind the plate for the “Shot Heard ’Round the World” – Bobby Thomson’s 1951 home run that won the National League pennant for the New York Giants over Brooklyn.

Verlon Walker inherited his older brother’s nickname and his position of catcher, but not his talent. He was drafted by the Cubs in 1948, leaving Lenoir High before graduation. He had a decent minor-league career, but he never made it to the majors as a player because he didn’t hit the ball well enough.

The Cubs’ front office liked him, though, and kept him around as a coach once his playing career ended. From 1961-71, he was a coach in the big leagues.

In an accent as Southern as sweet tea, Walker spoke often about his love for Lenoir. The Cubs’ biggest star at the time, Ernie Banks, used to say that to listen to Walker talk, it sounded like Lenoir was as important of an American city as New York.

During a time when the Cubs weren’t winning much, Walker was a steadying influence, especially on the team’s younger players.

“There was just a quiet honesty about him,” said Dick Ellsworth, a pitcher for the Cubs who played for Walker in the 1960s in Chicago. “Unlike a lot of coaches, he wasn’t a politician. He was just a good guy.”

‘The apple of Verlon’s eye’

Walker and his wife, Ann, met at a football game in Lenoir after high school and courted off and on for eight years. “I was a bridesmaid for all of my girlfriends long before I ever got married,” said Ann Walker, 84, who still lives in Lenoir.

Verlon Walker developed leukemia while they were dating. It was treated with apparent success, however. His cancer went into remission for five years.

During that remission, in February 1966, Verlon and Ann Walker eloped. Both of them were 36 when they married. Ann Walker moved from Lenoir to Chicago to be with her husband, and Leigh Ann was born two years later. She would be their only child.

The couple had Leigh Ann so late in life for those times that both Verlon and Ann Walker were occasionally mistaken for Leigh Ann’s grandparents.

“She was the apple of Verlon’s eye,” Ann Walker said, “and oh, she loved him. She would follow him around, always holding a pocketbook, because back then she wanted to carry a pocketbook everywhere she went.”

There are some pictures of father and daughter together, including one taken at Wrigley Field in 1969 that is a family treasure. The 16-month-old Leigh Ann holds a red pocketbook. Walker, in his Cubs uniform, proudly holds his blonde daughter.

Those were happy days for the family. But in early 1971, the cancer came back with a vengeance. Treatment failed.

Walker died on March 24, 1971. His newspaper obituary noted that he was “often teased by Cubs’ personnel for being Lenoir’s ambassador to the world.” The Cubs established a Verlon (Rube) Walker Leukemia Center at a Chicago hospital to honor Walker. In Lenoir, a local baseball field was named Walker Stadium.

The search begins

Ann Walker moved back to Lenoir in the early 1970s and remarried a few years after her husband died. From the third grade onward, Leigh Ann had a stepfather. He taught her to drive and tried to fill the void her dad had left.

She still felt the hole but tried to ignore it. When the subject of fathers came up among her friends when she was a kid, Leigh Ann would quickly change the topic, because it hurt to think about it.

As she wrote in a recent blog post on baseballlovestory.com: “I was 5 years old when a woman told me that my father was needed in heaven and that is why God took him. Impossible, I thought. There is no way God needs him more than me.”

Young graduated from high school, went to college at Lees-McRae, moved to Charlotte and became a high school English teacher at South Mecklenburg. She got married, had two boys with her husband, Dennis, and stopped teaching full time.

Her late father was usually not at the forefront of her thoughts. But then she saw her two boys, Walker and Christopher, playing and talking with her husband. And she started thinking once again about all she had missed.

“I realized how powerful that interaction between fathers and their children was,” Young said. “I didn’t have that fatherly figure growing up. And so it kind of pulled that grief to the surface. I pulled out my pictures and started writing things down. I had things he had touched – a coat, a bat, a lighter – but I didn’t have his voice. And that just almost became an archetype for me – the fatherly voice. So I began the search.”

That was in 2011. She established her blog. She called up radio and TV stations in Chicago, starting every conversation with, “You don’t know me but … ”

“I’m a little introverted by nature,” she said. “So that was out of my comfort zone. I don’t like asking people for help, but I was having to do it.”

She got a little publicity, which led to an article in a sports collector magazine, which led to national sportscaster Keith Olbermann doing a brief piece on his TV show about her search.

It turns out that reel-to-reel tapes – used for most recordings back then – were difficult to make and expensive to store. Most of the time they were simply recorded over to save time and money.

The recording she kept hoping for, that she still believes must exist, has never surfaced.

The peacemaker

Her search, though, put her in contact with former players, coaches and front-office people with the Cubs. The memories of her father’s contemporaries made him start to come alive.

An example: Young called a former player for the Cubs named Dick Ellsworth, who had known her father. Ellsworth, 74, had been out of baseball for more than 40 years. Once a pitcher for the Cubs when Walker was a coach, he had become a successful commercial real-estate broker in Fresno, Calif. He had barely thought of Walker since the 1960s and was surprised to get Young’s call.

The Cubs of the early 1960s were mostly a mess, saddled with a front office that was experimenting with an ill-fated concept called the “college of coaches.” There was no single manager of the team. Instead, a group of eight coaches rotated for a few weeks at a time as the “head coach.”

The concept was widely ridiculed. The Cubs got even worse.

“If it hadn’t been for Rube Walker and that quiet, steadying confidence that he had, a lot of our young players would have had a lot more difficulty putting up with these crazy notions that came out of the front office in Chicago,” Ellsworth said.

Player after player told Young that her father served as the team’s “peacemaker.” Since Young has always considered herself a peacemaker, too, this was a sweet revelation. Here was a piece of her father to hold onto, a characteristic they shared.

“This whole thing has helped her understand,” her mother, Ann Walker, said, “that she and her dad have a lot of the same personality. I see so much of him in her. And I can see a change in her. She feels like she’s a little bit closer to her father now.”

For Young, the mystery of who her father was has been partially solved. And even without the audio recording she still seeks, the longing she has for him has been partially filled.

“I set out on a journey going one way, and then I went a lot of different ways I didn’t intend to go,” Young said. “I really thought I’d just find a recording in the first few days by calling the Cubs. I never have found that. But I’ve found so much more.”

As for us? We’re the lucky ones. Almost all of us can hear our father’s own voice on Father’s Day if we want to, even if it’s only in a memory.

That’s all Leigh Ann Walker Young is trying to do, really – to remember her own father.

And to understand his voice, even if she never hears it.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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