ATLANTA — LeRoy T. Walker has broken bread with Jesse Owens and Jesse Jackson, watched from the wings at the Cotton Club as Duke Ellington led his orchestra, played golf with Michael Jordan, washed windows at the Pentagon and been chancellor of a university.
His is not the quintessential African-American experience. On the contrary, his life has been extraordinary. Yet he is as deeply rooted in the tradition and culture of his race as the cotton picked by his ancestors was in the Georgia soil.
And it is from there that Walker, the 74-year-old, churchgoing, Churchill-quoting grandson of slaves, has risen to become the first black president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Elected in October to a four-year term, he is beginning his first full calendar year in an office that has been held by such prominent Americans as A.G. Spalding, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Avery Brundage and William E. Simon.
As the lone nominee for the position, while serving two months before the election as head of the U.S. delegation to the 1992 Summer Olympics at Barcelona, Walker served notice that he would be an aggressive leader by taking on the Dream Team. He became its most formidable challenger, protesting the U.S. basketball team's selection process, living arrangements and priorities that he believed were inconsistent with the Olympic ideal.
Although many USOC members agreed, most wished he had delivered his criticisms behind closed doors instead of on the front pages of the nation's leading newspapers.
But even today, while acknowledging that he should guard his opinions lest they be confused with official USOC positions, he barely tempers his remarks regarding the Dream Team, and, in the three months since his election as USOC president by acclamation, he has been out front, ahead of the committee, on other controversial issues as well.
"I guess I've lived too long and come too far to not speak my mind," he said in a recent interview at the headquarters of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, organizing body for the 1996 Summer Olympics. He served as ACOG's senior vice president for sports until he resigned to accept the USOC position.
Born in 1918, he was the youngest of Willie and Mary Walker's 13 children and became the first to go to college. His mother would not have settled for less, insisting that the brightest light in the house be over the table where LeRoy read his books, usually the Bible. When LeRoy was 9, his father, a fireman for the Georgia Southern Railroad, died, and Mary sent her youngest child to live with a brother in Harlem.
"I'll never forget what she told me," Walker said. "She said, 'If anything gets in your way, look it in the eye, grab hold of it and find a way to achieve in spite of it.' One of the things that was drilled into me was to not let circumstances determine what I could begin to be."
It was a lesson well learned.
After receiving his master's degree from Columbia University in 1941, he overheard an administrator comment that no black could be allowed to earn a doctorate there, even though Walker already was progressing toward the degree. So Walker traveled downtown to New York University and got his Ph.D.
In the '50s, as the track coach at predominantly black North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C., Walker sometimes had to take his teams as far as 200 miles out of the way while traveling to meets in the South to find hotels and restaurants that would serve them. Yet Walker produced athletes who participated in seven consecutive Summer Olympics between 1952 and '76.
After attempting to reason with athletes who planned protests during the 1968 Summer Olympics, Walker was hurt by criticism that he was not outspoken enough on behalf of black causes. Fifteen years later, he heard similar complaints when promoted from vice chancellor to chancellor at North Carolina Central. In both cases, he eventually earned respect from most of his critics.
One day last October, on the way from the airport to the Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami Beach, where he would be elected the USOC's 23rd president, Walker was recalling chapters of his life when he spotted a familiar hotel from the causeway.
Visiting the city some years earlier for a convention of the American Assn. of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, Walker was prevented from registering at the hotel because of his color. When fellow members learned of the situation, they issued a threat to move the convention. It achieved the intended result and then some. Walker ended up with the honeymoon suite.
On the walls of Walker's office are pictures and memorabilia from his almost five decades as a track coach and athletic administrator, including certificates from a couple of the 14 halls of fame into which he has been inducted. But there are no diplomas--not from Benedict College in South Carolina, Columbia or NYU.
The education he values most, he said, came from the streets of Harlem.