When Leo “Lee” Walker’s caretakers wheeled him into the conference room of the Hampton Inn Saturday, he was a bit surprised to see so many family members and friends gathered for food and reminiscing. Naturally, he asked what all the fuss was about.
The answer he got was something very few people live to hear.
“They’re here to celebrate your 100th birthday, Lee.”
Not fazed by the gravity of the statement, Walker quickly reached for his wallet and asked whom he should pay.
Several caretakers convinced him that his two children had covered the bill, to which Walker replied, “Well, I appreciate it,” before asking when lunch would be served.
Such a dialogue is typical of the gentlemanly, food-loving centenarian and retiree who spent years working as a fiscal officer in Athens.
The youngest of nine children, Walker was born Feb. 24, 1911 (he officially turned 100 Thursday) to a thoroughly German household — his father was a tailor who only spoke his native tongue, and his mother’s maiden name was Seitz. He attended St. John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo, where he studied English, Latin and Christian doctrine.
Current administrators at the high school recently found and mailed him his 82-year-old grade card.
“The Jesuits are tough,” Walker said, recalling his days in the classroom and his mediocre grades.
After graduating in 1929, Walker became involved with the Purple Gang, an alcohol-smuggling mob based out of Detroit and a primary source for obtaining alcohol during the Prohibition era.
Here, Walker had contact with baseball Hall of Fame catcher Roger Bresnahan, who at one point gave him a takedown shotgun. Walker’s son Rich, of Brighton, Mich., still owns the gun.
When Prohibition ended, Walker stayed in the alcohol industry by working for the Buckeye Brewing Company in Ohio. During World War II he worked for Willys-Overland Motors, the company that built Jeeps for the military.
Walker then moved to Athens, where he took a job as a comptroller with the Royal McBee Company, which specialized in making typewriters. He was later laid off and became a fiscal officer at Ohio University, Rich Walker said.
His first wife died in 1966, and in 1969 he married Marge — the “light of his life,” Rich Walker said.
The couple started the Haviland Matching Service in Athens in 1972. Haviland & Co. was a producer of porcelain china for more than 150 years, and the matching service helped people find pieces to complete their china sets.
Marge died in 2003. Today, Walker has two children, seven grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Walker maintains his independence, living at home with the help of around-the-clock caretakers. Seven women cook, clean and help him with daily activities. One person is always in the house with him, and two accompany him to doctor’s appointments.
“He’s a very, very kind gentleman,” said Linda Bullock, who has been Walker’s caretaker for seven years. “I’m with elderly people all day, and I’ve never met a man at his age so polite, caring and thoughtful.”
His favorite activities include crossword puzzles and reading the newspaper, Bullock said. He watches reruns of Gunsmoke, golf and lottery results on television.
“He loves to play cards,” said two-year caretaker Cheryl Mossberger. “In fact, he loves cheating. Every time we play he slips a card or two.”
But above all, Walker loves food, especially ice cream. His favorite local establishment is Larry’s Dawg House.
“He can out-eat any of us,” Mossberger said.
Becky Cox, a five-year caretaker, agreed.
“The only thing that he doesn’t like that I know of is fried green tomatoes,” she said.
Walker’s kind spirit also has an ornery side, Cox said.
One time, she added, his home lost power for three hours. He began flicking nickels across the room and asked her to retrieve them — for all three hours.
“When I walk in to wake him up in the morning, he says, ‘You’re late. Next time be on time or I’ll fire you’,” said three-year caretaker Christy Bateman.
But even after 100 years, Walker retains his courteous personality. He greets men with a handshake, women with a kiss on the cheek. He says ‘thank you’ whenever his caretakers help him with a task. For all who know him well, he is a family member.
“He reminds me of my dad,” Bateman said. “I love him.”