By FRANK LEWIS
PDT Staff Writer
“The area has lost a great leader,” former Gov. Ted Strickland said as he reflected on the life of Bob Walton, the executive directer of Scioto County Community Action, who died early Friday at SOMC Hospice. He was 70. “I don’t know if we are producing leaders like him anymore, people who give of their time and efforts the way he did.”
Walton went to work at Community Action in 1968 as an educational specialist, was appointed director of the neighborhood centers in 1969, was a program planner in 1970, took a leave of absence in 1971 to consult with the state Department of Development on an evaluation project in Athens, and was named Community Action’s executive director in 1972.
Walton, one of the best known leaders in not only Scioto County, but across the state, and whose influenced stretched to Washington, D.C., had been ill for some time.
“After he was diagnosed, he fought the fight,” Strickland said. “I visited him in the hospital years ago, and quite frankly thought that might have been the last time that I would ever see him then — he seemed to be in such a weakened condition. But he kept fighting back.”
Walton was diagnosed in 2005 with lung cancer.
Strickland said he talked with Walton several weeks ago and said Walton was in good spirits.
“He was not feeling sorry for himself or complaining about his circumstances, but talking about the things we always talked about,” Strickland said.
Strickland credits Walton with the former governor’s political career. Walton worked for Strickland in the early days when Strickland was struggling to get elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
“My own political career may not have developed or happened had it not been for Bob and the kind of support that he gave me,” Strickland said.
On Friday morning, New Boston Mayor Jim Warren said he missed Walton already.
“I have a few tears coming in my eyes now. I think that he has been one of the most moving people I’ve ever known,” Warren said. “He cared about people and he cared about his community.”
Warren, like other community leaders reflecting on Walton’s life, credited him with being one of the people who worked on his own time to bring development and jobs to the area. The area where most of the development has occurred in New Boston is named “The Bob Walton Industrial Park.”
“He and Mick Sturgill looked at the site when it was a brownfield and said, ‘if we can just get one business in there we can reclaim the brownfield site,” Warren said. “As you can see, we have reclaimed almost a total part of that brownfield site.”
Warren said Walton was a team player, who knew how to communicate across all strata of life.
“He was on the Port Authority Board (SOPA), over the CAO, and I sat in on many meetings and heard him pitch for job creation for our area,” Warren said. “He has gone above and beyond what the average person does.”
One of the area’s best-known developers, Don Hadsell, visited Walton at Hospice the day before his passing and was visibly moved after learning of Walton’s death.
“Southern Ohio has lost one of the greatest men, as far as I’m concerned, in development,” Hadsell said. “He spent his whole life giving of his time and energy for development in southern Ohio. And I have lost a friend. He was my closest friend that I have had for years.”
Probably no one, outside of his family, was closer to Walton than the man who has served as interim executive director of CAO during Walton’s extended illness, Bill Thacker, his best friend since the two were in first grade.
“He has been a great friend and advocate. Lots and lots of people have a better life because of Bob’s energy and vision,” Thacker said.”I don’t think any of the growth at the industrial park would have ever been in place without Bob’s leadership. That all began back in 1995 at the start up of the Enterprise Community Designation. Bob is the one who pushed and pulled, harangued and everything else necessary. He could be persuasive and he could be evasive, whatever was necessary to get it through. He was certainly instrumental in Sun Coke, which is now Haverhill North. Literally thousands of people have been impacted for the better for his efforts at Community Action. Most of what he did, he did free of charge. That was not his job. He just did that.”
Bob Walton Jr. reflected on his father’s achievements.
“Moving back home 10 years ago, I have had the honor of working with him closely on several projects over the years. Most recently it was Infra-Metals. I use the term “recently” rather loosely as the Infra-Metals project started in 2007 and looked like it would happen for sure in 2008. Then, all hell broke loose in this country with the near collapse of our economy,” Walton Jr. said. “Dad was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 and has fought it back into submission three times since then. In 2010, it looked like the economy was turning a corner and so he pushed again for Infra-Metals to move forward, then he got very sick again. I worked closely with him and many others for months to move that project forward, and it did”
Strickland summed up the feelings of many members of the community Friday morning.
“He’s just a dear dear friend, a great community leader, and one who could be a little prickly at times. But I think that grew out of his strong feelings about trying to get things done to help people. So I have lost a great personal friend, and the community has lost a wonderful community leader,” Strickland said. “I’m grateful for having known him, and for having him as my friend.”
Thacker said there is a lot of work ahead to be done to continue the Walton legacy of industry and job creation, and he said he intends to continue to work toward the goals set by his lifelong friend.
“What we’re going to do is honor him in the best way we can, and that is put our head down and fight the fight.”
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 232, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.