Activist Richard J. Walton’s great adventure in life and death
Throughout his 84 years, Richard J. Walton served as a role model for generations of activists, watching out and protecting Rhode Island’s voiceless citizens, showing all that positive societal changes could be made by making sound arguments. With his last breath, he even taught us how to face death.
Walton died on Dec. 27 at Rhode Island Hospital. He had been treated for leukemia for about six months, says daughter Cathy Walton Barnard of Simsbury, Conn., who noted his last words, “I’m going on a great adventure.”
Walton touched many lives
Even with many in Walton’s vast progressive and activist networks knowing about his illness, people were caught off guard by his sudden passing, says Rick Wahlberg, a computer consultant and a former president of Stone Soup Coffee House, who worked closely with Walton on the nonprofit’s Board of Directors for over 20 years and developed close personal ties.
“We considered him part of our family just like many others did,” he said.
According to Wahlberg, a Cumberland resident, Walton was part of New York’s intelligentsia scene [mingling with writers at the Lion’s Head, a bar a few steps down from Christopher Street] in Greenwich Village, where he lived making a living as a writer.
Wahlberg viewed Walton as a “great example of morality, humanity and a supporter of nonviolence,” noting that his friend led an amazing life that helped shape his progressive point of view and that of his two daughters. When his oldest daughter, Corinne, heard of Walton’s passing, she remarked, “he did more in one lifetime than most.”
Especially when espousing his causes and fighting for the right of workers to organize a union at Rhode Island College, “Richard was very firm in his views, but you would be hard-pressed to find any one who did not like him, even if they disagreed with him,” remembers Wahlberg.
Over the years, Wahlberg, 59, and his wife, Barbara, attended Walton’s birthday parties that would raise large sums of money for his favorite charities, attracting the state’s powerful political and media elite right to his family compound, located at Pawtuxet in Warwick. This legendary fundraising event occurred from 1999 to 2011, bringing hundreds of people each year to celebrate his progressive causes.
Due to his health in 2012, for the first time, Walton’s birthday was held at the Roots Cultural Center in Providence.
Joyce Katzberg, 59, folksinger and a founding organizer of Stone Soup Coffee House, spent decades protesting with Walton at vigils, rallies and picket lines. She remembers him as a kind, honest person. When necessary, he was not afraid of using the “F word,” she quipped, noting that this word stood for fascism. His social advocacy “has left many ripples and impacted many Rhode Island nonprofits,” she adds.
“Richard called things for what they were, said things in ways that were hard to argue with because he had the facts, knew the background stories and did his home work. He cared enough to tell the truth,” said Katzberg, stressing how he excelled at moderating views between people with differing positions.
Bruce McCrae (a.k.a. Rudy Cheeks), a co-author of the Phillip and Jorge column in the weekly Providence Phoenix, who knew Walton for over 30 years as a social activist, educator and a strong advocate for traditional American Folk music, had his thoughts about his recent passing.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Rhode Island would have been a much different and poorer place without his constant presence. He was a mentor to generations of students and social activists, and one of the strongest voices for peace and equality that Rhode Island has ever known,” he said.
McCrae, 62, says his efforts for social change extended internationally to Africa where, in 1960, he worked on a number of documentary films on the emerging independence movements on that continent and to Latin America, where he started the Sister Cities Project between Providence and Niquinohomo, Nicaragua, helping to build a medical facility and school there.
One of the city of Pawtucket’s most visible social advocates, Maggi Burns Rogers, remembers Walton as someone who worked hard to improve the world without forgetting how to enjoy it. “He loved to laugh, eat, drink, was an avid gardener, knew his music, read literature and even traveled the world.” (In between his social activism, teaching and writing, during his long life Walton traveled to more than 50 countries, making return trips to many of them.),
“Richard won’t be remembered for just one thing because he brought his talent to so many different nonprofits,” says Rogers, including Amos House, the George Wiley Center, Stone Soup Coffee House, Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless and the Pawtucket Arts Festival Executive Committee, to name just a few.
President Betsy Florin, of the Pawtucket-based George Wiley Center, viewed Walton with his long white beard as a Santa Claus-like figure. But unlike Santa, he gave every day of the year, all of his life, she said. “His real gift was not something tangible that could be wrapped in a pretty box and placed under a tree; it was, rather, a gift of imagination combined with activism.”
Walton “imagined a world of decency and fairness and then sought to make that happen,” said Florin.
As to Walton’s daughter, Barnard, 52, even in her earliest childhood memories she remembers her father as being an activist who once marched with his young daughter at a gay pride parade. While not being an activist to “his degree,” the preschool teacher is very politically active in her local community.
Today, Barnard is a diehard New York Mets fan. When Barnard and her brother visited their father in New York, he often took them to watch the team play at Shea Stadium. (As noted in an op-ed penned by Walton in 2000, throughout his life Walton’s favorite baseball player and hero was Hank Greenberg, a Jewish baseball player who played in the major leagues in the 1930s and 1940s, primarily for the Detroit Tigers. He was considered to be one of the premier power hitters of his generation. Walton noted that Greenberg, who experienced anti Semitism, would encourage another player subject to slurs from the sidelines, which was Jackie Robinson.)
Six lifetimes jammed into one
Walton’s life is richly detailed in Wikipedia, a web-based free content encyclopedia.
Born in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Walton grew up in South Providence in the 1930s, graduating from Classical High School in 1945. After taking a two-year break from his studies at Brown University, serving as a journalist mate in the U.S. Navy, he returned to receive a bachelor’s degree in 1951. He whet his appetite for music by working as a disc jockey at Providence radio station WICE before enrolling in Columbia School of Journalism where he later earned a masters in journalism degree in 1955.
Walton’s training at Brown University and the School of Journalism at Columbia propelled him into a writing career. During his early years, he worked as a reporter at the Providence Journal, and the New York World Telegram and Sun. At Voice of America in Washington, D.C., Walton would initially put in time reporting on African issues, ultimately being assigned to cover the United Nations.
The prolific writer would eventually publish 12 books, nine being written as critical assessments of U.S. foreign policy. In the late 1960s, as a freelance writer, he made his living by writing for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Village Voice, Newsday, The [old] New Republic, Cosmopolitan, even Playboy. He was also the former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant’s personal editor for his memoir, “The View from the United Nations.”
In 1981, after 26 years of living outside of Rhode Island, he would return, ultimately becoming one of the most recognizable social activists around, fighting against hunger, homelessness and poverty. The journalist would run for political office and was active in the Citizens Party [the predecessor to the Green Party].
He ran as the political group’s vice presidential candidate in 1984 with the radical feminist Sonia Johnson. They did not win.
For more than 25 years, Walton taught writing to thousands of students at Rhode Island College (RIC). Walton fought to successfully establish a union at this university, hammering out a contract, ultimately serving as its first president until his death. With his death, RIC President Nancy Carriuolo called for lowering the flags on campus to half-staff in his memory.
Walton was married to Margaret Hilton and Mary Una Jones, both marriages ending in divorce. He is survived by his daughter Cathy Walton Barnard and son Richard Walton and three grandchildren.
Big shoes to fill
Walton, with his long white hair and beard, wearing his trademark blue overalls, bandana and Stone Soup baseball cap, serves as a role model to the younger generations of social activists, those who will take up his worthy causes to fight for justice, to end poverty, hunger and homelessness. He taught us how to live life to the fullest, exploring the world while not forgetting to help those in need.
Walton’s life turned out to be a grand adventure. But even with death approaching, he taught us to take that leap of faith into the unknown, recognizing that death, too, can be an even grander adventure.
The family is planning a memorial service to be held the first weekend in June.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers health care, aging and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@