Photograph by Anthony Washington and courtesy of WAMU, Washington, D.C
I assume many of us have someone we value as a good friend even though we have lost touch with him or her for one reason or another. But it has not lessened the spirit of the relationship in any way. I have one such person in mind for me personally. We worked together for several years when I lived in Washington, D.C. back in the 1970s. Despite the lack of keeping in touch, I think of him often, very often.
Ed Walker, that is my former colleague’s name, is the person I mention every time that “Who is your hero?” question comes up. You’ve been asked it, I’m sure. It’s tossed out at job interviews, comes up at parties or at a dinner conversations. Most people talk about someone we may know of—an astronaut or famous athlete, or maybe a first responder or a soldier. Ed is well-known in his environment, but once out of his immediate geography not many folks have ever heard of him. Part of the reason for that is that Ed is a low-profiler kind of person. He will not bring attention to himself. He is not inclined to spend much time telling you about his accomplishment.
I worked in radio most of my life. No, I wasn’t a disc jockey or a news reporter. I was one of the people back in the office juggling a budget or typing away at memos to staff or reports to the big boss. I was a program director most of my career. Everything and everybody you hear on the radio is pretty much siphoned through the program director. It can be a glamorous but seldom a glorious job.
Ed was a disc jockey as the term is commonly applied. At the radio station where we worked we called dj’s “on-air personalities.” And, indeed, they did more than jockey records on and off the turntables. They had to talk, and talk both knowledgeably and entertainingly. Ed’s specialty was old-time radio. He was an expert on what was called the golden age of radio—primarily the1940’s and ’50’s if you had to assign some years to it. He knew all about the music and even more about the artists who performed it. He also knew all about the old radio shows that people used to tune into regularly, just like watching television, except there was no television back then. Radio made all the pictures and nobody had trouble seeing them. So this was Ed’s genre, but he could be just as contemporary as anyone else so he often filled in for others on the air who were out ill or vacationing.
Before I met Ed he was on a competing radio station. He was teamed up with someone you may very well remember. His name was Willard Scott, the folksy weatherman on the Today show for many years. Well, before that, Willard and Ed were “The Joy Boys” on WRC radio in Washington. They were the local standup comedians of their day and they were incredibly talented and very funny.
Long before laptops and iPads, people carried a briefcase back and forth to work. It usually contained things they needed for the job: forms, memos, sales and promotional materials, lunch and probably—back then–a spare pack of cigarettes. People walked around all the time with their world neatly contained inside their briefcase. Ed didn’t have a briefcase. He had a door.
Ed’s door was a miniature version, a little over a foot square. It looked just like a normal door, except a lot smaller. It was perfectly functional. It had a sturdy door frame, two brass hinges and a heavy base so it stood nice and sturdy. On top was a handle by which Ed carried it around. It had a nice brassy doorknob and a loose latch that you could easily hear when the door was opened and closed. Each day, Ed would settle into the studio chair at the beginning of his shift. Near him, always within reach atop the table, was his door.
The door was actually a prop—a radio sound effect to be precise. Anytime when Ed was on the air you were liable to hear a little knock on the door and then the sound of it opening. In would walk just about anyone. It could be a celebrity, a politician or a long line of characters that chattered in their own dialects and accents as portrayed by Ed himself. These informal intruders who paraded continuously through his door were Ed’s fodder for hilarious conversation and gossip of the day. He could switch characters and his voices in a split second. When each left, the door was usually slammed behind them. Ed was an artist. The door was his palette. When he opened it, he allowed his incredible mind into ours. What a magic moment on the radio.
But, as happens, nothing is forever in radio. Willard Scott went off to morning television and Ed was sort of left dangling for a short while. I hired him to do a show on Sunday mornings. We called it “Play it Again, Ed” and it featured all the music and personalities of the golden age of radio. As host, you could not ask for anyone better than Ed. Did he bring his door with him? Of course.
Watching Ed was inspirational. You could not help but wonder how one person achieves such a level of talent. Ed played the records and told you all about them and the times during which they were popular. He pushed all the buttons and switched all the switches. He read the weather, did time checks and took care of all the commercials and announcements that had to be made. Ed could handle it all…and he did it more smoothly and more professionally than many radio personalities who could see.
Yes, I said, who could see. Ed has been blind since birth. But if you didn’t know it, you could never tell by listening to him on the radio. In fact, sometimes when I watched him I still had a hard time believing it. Once I sat waiting for him in our 4th floor lobby. He was a little late, but finally the elevator doors opened and out rolled a man in a wheel chair.
“Straight for about two steps then left, Ed,” the man was saying. Behind him, pushing the wheelchair, was Ed.
“Sorry I’m late,” he told me, “but I ran into this disabled guy downstairs and I had to help him get up here.”
Ed didn’t have a seeing-eye dog. I never saw him with a cane. I don’t know how he did it. I bumped into more walls and furniture than he did. He had no fear. He would go anywhere and do practically anything. And yet, Ed Walker is about as normal a person as you will ever meet. He has the same conversations over lunch we all do. He can be pissed at something or someone or be telling you about something that happened on the television show he hosted that morning. Oh, did I mention he hosted a television show?!
Things I especially remember about Ed were his genuine sense of humor and his contagious laugh. He often made himself the brunt of both.
Ed has hosted for years a program called The Big Broadcast on WAMU in Washington, Sunday nights from 8pm-midnight. It features everything from the Golden Age of Radio and the Golden Mind of Ed Walker. After Sunday, and after a career that has spanned some 65 years, there will be an irreplaceable void on the radio dial. Ed is in his 80s and things are happening to him that eventually happen to many of us. He recorded his last broadcast this week from his hospital room. It will air this Sunday night. (the link: https://wamu.org/audio-player).
The treasure of Ed Walker is that he makes you blind to him. Being with Ed, you see only a normal person–a human being like anyone else you associate with from day-to-day. Of course, there are some things to notice: the dark glasses, the braille writer and stack of papers with little pimples protruding on the surface; a deliberately slow-moving hand going to grab a hot cup of coffee that it doesn’t see. But, after a while, you give no thought to any of these things. You take them for granted…just as Ed does. And this, this is the true beauty and the true heroism of Ed Walker. He can make you feel so at ease with him, because he is so at ease with himself. Imagine what an effort it took to get there. What an achievement for anybody. What a special achievement for someone like Ed.