Less than two years after he walked across the country to alert people to the importance of cancer checkups, William Croker of Hawaiian Gardens will try to do it again.
Known as Walkin' Willie, he has become something of a folk hero. A book and a song have been written about him. Governors send him their autographs. Tennessee has designated a day in his honor.
"What I do seems to capture people's imaginations," said Croker, who plans to leave Feb. 6 from the Rossmoor Shopping Center in Seal Beach on a 76-day trip to Washington, D.C.
"You do it with a dream and a bunch of guts. I can't describe it, but there's something in me that drives the heck out of me."
Croker, whose mother, father and sister died of cancer, is repeating the walk because when he reached Washington in the summer of 1987, President Reagan was unable to meet with him. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) has promised Croker that he will try to arrange a visit with President Bush when Croker arrives in the capital April 22.
"It will not be over for me till I can meet the President," Croker said.
Still, Croker's efforts have hardly been in vain. "I believe these walks have literally saved thousands of lives through communications I've had with the media on the way," he said.
Wilson plans to introduce a resolution next month in the U.S. Senate declaring April as National Cancer Awareness Month. Last spring, the third week in April was established as Cancer Awareness Week in California after Croker made a 27-day walk to Sacramento and addressed the Legislature.
"Twice in two years, a transcontinental walk . . . and I'm 41 years old," Croker said, as if even he can't believe it.
Videotapes Are Proof
But he has proof: videotapes taken on his 1987 trip. One shows him walking along steamy interstates at 7 m.p.h., with traffic rushing by precariously close.
"Pretty courageous isn't it?" Croker said while showing the tapes recently. "Out in the rain on the interstate. That's how we got popular across the country. Truckers would get on the CB and say, 'There he is again.' "
He has tapes of him jumping in a swimming pool after reaching Sacramento, and tapes of him being interviewed by TV crews across the nation. There is one of a bearded Croker ("I didn't have money for razor blades") meeting in Washington with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
He also has state proclamations and letters from politicians. "Look at the proclamations, how they mention Walkin' Willie," Croker went on as he spread them on a table. "They're making me an honorary citizen all across the country . . . Illinois . . . the great state of Indiana . . . Rhode Island. I've been made a citizen in 18 states. Autographed pictures from governors, letters from every major U.S. senator. Here's a letter from Michael Dukakis."
And now there is a song that Croker says Larry Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers wrote. It starts:
"Walkin' Willie, he's a hell of a man, he's gonna show the world where we stand."
"They sent me a demo tape," Croker said. "Wait till they get that thing in stereo."
Croker, who claims that no one can beat him walking, is also trying to promote his sport.
"Everywhere I go now they want to get into this health kick of walking," he said. "People have invited me back to start walkin' seminars."
A tall, bulky man with a receding hairline, Croker does not look as if he is on a health kick. His stomach stands out like it did before he started his '87 walk. "That's why I'm beefed up," he said. "I lost 39 pounds the last time.
"I'm in the greatest shape of any human being in this world right now. I'm so solid, I could leave right now and not have any pain or blisters. I walk every day (about 20 miles). My legs are so strong. My feet are completely healed."
His feet were so blistered in 1987 that there were times when he took off his shoes and blood poured from them.
Arrival in April
He believes it will be tougher this time.
"I'll be facing windchill factors," he said. "I will have to face mountain ranges you have never dreamed about. Inclines that are almost straight up. And deserts. What I got to do ain't easy." He has timed the trip to arrive in Washington in April, Cancer Awareness Month.
But he will attempt it because he believes there is not enough education about early detection of cancer. When his mother died in 1970, Croker said the doctor told him that if she had come to him a year earlier, she would have still been alive. Croker remembers saying, "Doctor, as long as I live I'm going to do something about it."
Croker will walk through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. Among the cities and towns he will stop in will be San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, Pecos, Tex., Arkadelphia, Ark., Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Cumberland, Md.