Born in 1886 and growing up on his father’s farm in Plantersville, Ala., number four in a lineup of 10 children, Dr. Walker worked hard and shared in the demanding farm duties. While farm life was often difficult, his family maintained their focus on the value of education and even sent him off to school in their diligent endeavor to provide him with an education which would prepare him for his career in medicine.
After graduating from the Medical College of Alabama, Dr. Walker practiced his first years in Burnsville, Ala., and always enjoyed sharing the story of his most famous patient there. Claudia Alta Taylor, also known as Lady Bird, who later married Lyndon B. Johnson and served as First Lady from November 1963 until January 1969, visited his medical office as a little girl when she came to Burnsville to spend time with relatives.
While practicing in Burnsville, Dr. Walker met Frances Rebecca “Teepsy” Woodfin, who was teaching in her hometown, Uniontown They married in 1918 and moved to Long Island, N.Y., where he was stationed during his World War I Army service.
While Friday the 13th may summon visions of bad luck for the superstitious, Sarah Catherine Walker Murphy knows her parents considered her birthday the luckiest day of their lives. On that traditionally unlucky day, a pilot friend of Dr. Walker’s invited him to join a group of medical officers on an airplane ride. He was thrilled to be invited but had to refuse since he was waiting for Sarah Catherine’s birth. Incredible good luck found Dr. Walker that day as the plane crashed and everyone on board died. Sarah Catherine thoughtfully acknowledged, “I guess I saved his life.”
Smiling as she remembered her father’s understandable refusal to fly, Sarah Catherine added, “The only time I ever knew he got his feet off the ground was getting in a Ferris wheel with my children and he didn’t like that one bit. He just didn’t like to get off the ground.”
After his military service ended, Dr. Walker wanted to stay in New York. But “Teepsy” had a strong link to Jasper since her sister and brother-in-law, Irma and Craig Palmer, lived here and operated People’s Drug Company. So the Walker family moved to Jasper and Dr. Walker opened his medical office over the drug store. His very first patient was the postmaster who fainted in the drug store.
Sarah Catherine recalls her father’s stories about the initial difficulty in establishing a patient base. She laughed as she related his occasional act to look busy before his practice really got off the ground. As if he had a true medical “emergency” to handle, her father would run down the stairs from his office, dash out to his car, and then drive around for a short while so it would look like he had taken care of the “emergency.”
Dr. Walker’s general practice included delivering babies, often at home, as well as providing primary care to patients of all ages. In his younger years, he was especially interested in children’s medical issues and spent time in the summer in Saluda, N.C., studying childhood diseases.
Since he had no office hours, Dr. Walker’s patients would come in and often wait all day to see him. Sarah Catherine notes when she visited his busy office, the mood in the waiting room was light, patients were comfortably visiting with each other, and they did not appear to be bothered by the wait.
She also fondly remembered his nurse, Mrs. Virginia Lightsey. If he was seeing patients when one of his grandchildren got sick, Dr. Walker sent Virginia to take care of them and give shots if necessary. Sarah Catherine pointed out, “We always called her Dr. Lightsey.”
An affectionate, warm man with a wonderful sense of humor and a knack for storytelling, Dr. Walker treated his patients like they were his family.
He knew each patient personally, willingly listened to their concerns, and offered his opinions and advice when asked.
Dr. Walker saw patients seven days a week. On Sundays he would make hospital rounds, see patients in his office, attend church, return to his office to see more patients, and then finally come home for dinner. “My mother fed him at all hours…the house just revolved around Daddy,” Sarah Catherine explained.
Dr. Walker reserved a special place in his huge heart for Walker College. Appreciating his family’s struggle to provide for his education and understanding the need to open doors to education to more students, he supported the college in every way he could and admired Dr. David Rowland’s successful efforts to build the college into an honorable institution of higher learning.
Sarah Catherine and Sam Murphy’s children, Lawson, Sam Walker and Woodie, had the special advantage of growing up a short walk away from their grandparents’ home. Calling him “Doc,” Sam Walker described their grandfather as a slim, strong man who took great care with his appearance and always wore a long sleeve, crisply pressed white shirt, as well as a coat and tie, to work.
To a grandson, “Doc” was a grandfather who would pretend to shave his grandson’s face after shaving his own, took pleasure in his grandson’s company on a house call, relished inviting neighborhood children to breakfast and serving them ice cream before the real food, loved Christmas, and would not leave Jasper for the Fourth of July family reunion in Plantersville until he made hospital rounds and saw patients in his office. Sam Walker characterized “Doc” in a nutshell with his thought, “He was a very easy man to love, he truly was.”
With an equally balanced devotion to his profession and his family, Dr. L.M. Walker became one of the enduring essential threads in the heart and soul of our community. Although he is a gentleman of what seems to be a vanished era, an abridged glimpse into his life offers hope that there are other essential threads in our midst.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890