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A Feat on Foot : Walkin' Willie Trains for Cross-Country Trek to Fight Cancer, Took Vow at Mom's Death Bed

February 19, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

Away from the harassing traffic, William Croker finds peace in this ditch that holds the San Gabriel River. He focuses his eyes on the next bridge and his mind on cancer. He is among joggers and bicyclists but is not one of them. He walks.

Known as Walkin' Willie for the feats he has accomplished on foot, he is training to walk from Hawaiian Gardens to Washington, D.C. During the two-month, 3,245-mile trip, which will start April 20, Croker hopes to raise $1 million for cancer research.

Croker has walked against cancer before--12 years ago from Artesia to Las Vegas, and in 1976 across Death Valley.

It is 3:30 in the afternoon, and Croker, 39, has just gotten off his job as an attendant at a gas station at Carson Street and Studebaker Road in Lakewood.

"Ah, you breathe this fresh air," he said, heading south along the ribbon of river, dark under high clouds. "This is nice out here. Geez, I love it out here."

Croker, 6-feet-2 and 190 pounds, wears a plain brown sweat suit that has been stretched by his ponderous shoulders. Only four months ago he weighed 260.

"I like junk food," he explained, but the training--he walks up to 250 miles a week, including weekend strolls to Oceanside--has undone the pizza and hamburgers.

"I don't take no diet, no nothin'," he said. "This is what walkin' does for you."

A young woman jogs past Croker.

"Nope, never was a runner," he said. "Only when I had to do my laps in football. We'd lose the game, we'd be out there doing 25 laps the next day. Now I couldn't run three miles without droppin'."

Never Had a Driver's License

But he can walk forever. As a youngster, he would walk from his home in Hawthorne to Dodger Stadium. It was the only way he could get there.

"I've never been behind (the wheel of) a car in my entire life, never owned a driver's license," he said, swinging his arms to pick up the pace. "My family couldn't afford a car, this was back in late '50s, early '60s."

Croker, who was born with an iron deficiency that prevented him from walking until he was 7, went to Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, where he said he was so-so in football, basketball and baseball, but "I used to walk the mile faster than most people could run it."

He decided to devote his life to making people more aware of cancer after his mother died of it in 1970.

As El Dorado Park appeared on the left, Croker recalled that sad day: "The doctor put the sheet over her head and told me if he'd have had her a year earlier, she'd have still been alive. I said to him, 'I'll tell you something, doctor, as long as I live I'm going to do something about it.' And this is the only way I know how to dramatize it."

Croker, of Hawaiian Gardens, has received letters of praise from congressmen and Vice President George Bush. He said he is going to be on the Johnny Carson Show and is negotiating with Oprah Winfrey. He said Tom Brokaw once did a story on him. He said he is a personal friend of Eric Dickerson--"I've got an official football with ink writin' on it, not one of these stamped things, that says 'To Willie from the 1986 Los Angeles Rams.' "

Money Has Gone to Cancer

But Croker dismissed a suggestion that he is a celebrity.

"No way," he said. "Cause if I was doin' that (seeking publicity), I would have capitalized on it. I wouldn't be workin' right now, would I? After Death Valley, I could have made a million dollars. I could have had a lucrative contract with a shoe company. I've had

money offered to me, but I've turned it over to cancer."

Croker's cross-country walk across eight states has been precisely planned. He knows that on the 53rd day, June 11, he will walk from Mong Belle, Tenn., to Nashville. His arrival at the White House is scheduled June 25. Accompanied by a crew of five in a motor home, he plans to walk 55 miles on most days and rest on Sundays.

"I want to run this like a job," he said. "I want to get up at 6 and shut it down by 5 in the evening so I can get my sleep."

Trees and electrical transformers along the ditch tower above Croker. He has already gone five miles in barely more than an hour.

"Isn't this healthy for you," he said. "Nothing like it. Look at that park. These joggers over-extend sometimes, that's why a lot of people are having coronary attacks. When you walk, it's just fluent. You can pick it up, you can slow it down. It feels comfortable. I'm doin' more for my body than they (joggers) are doin', all that sweatin'."

A bicyclist, helmeted and goggled and hunched over like a jockey, sped by.

"They don't see anything," Croker said, shaking his head. "I like to look at all the little stones. I look around and enjoy everything. Especially on the way to Vegas. I think I seen every snail and every lizard there was."

Wears Tennis Shoes

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