LeRoy Walker’s legacy is like the Olympic flame he carried through Durham in 1996 – a tribute to commitment, perseverance and excellence.
Born in a segregated Atlanta as a grandson of slaves and the youngest of 13 children, Walker became the first African-American president of the United States Olympic Committee.
But before that, he carved a permanent place in North Carolina’s history through more than four decades of service at North Carolina Central University – as an acclaimed track coach from 1945-83 and then three years as Chancellor, retiring in 1986. During his time at NCCU, he coached 40 national champions and 12 Olympians.
In addition to his work at NCCU, Walker coached track teams from Israel, Ethiopia, Trinidad, Jamaica and Kenya, while also mentoring young American coaches.
“His athletes always talk about how my dad’s work and personal ethic impacted their lives in terms of helping them be good people, good coaches or whatever they chose to do in life,” LeRoy Walker Jr. said.
Walker was named the first black coach of an American Olympic team in 1974, leading the U.S. men’s track and field team that received 22 medals in the 1976 games in Montreal.
Walker was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1987. He was treasurer of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1988 until 1992, when he was named president.
“A lot of times the president is not a person who knows the world of the Olympics – the person might be noteworthy in sport or an outstanding business person, but my dad was a little of both,” Walker Jr. said. “He knew the operations of the Olympic movement inside-out.”
When he led the American team into the Atlanta Games in 1996, it was the culmination of a remarkable life’s journey.
“If I had to write the scenario for a movie, some people would not believe it,” he told the New York Times in 1992. “A guy born in Atlanta, where segregation was rampant, goes through all this, then returns for the centennial celebration of the Olympics as, quote, the top person, unquote of the national Olympic committee. It sounds Hollywoodish, yet there it is. But, you know, a lot of young blacks, Hispanics and other minorities can see that if you keep plugging away and pursuing excellence, something good can happen to you. I’ve always taught my teams success is a journey, not a destination. I think it’s a good message to understand.”
Later, Walker became the only member of his family to attend college. He received a bachelor’s degree from Benedict College of Columbia, S.C., a master’s from Columbia University and a doctorate in biomechanics from New York University.
Walker, who died in 2012 at 93, is enshrined in 17 sports halls of fame.
“He could’ve done anything he wanted to do,” his son said. “He was a great coach but whatever he chose to do, he would’ve been great at it.”
Creditline: Jun Chou