By Gary Gray
There is only one Duard Walker.
As the legendary Milligan College athlete, coach, teacher, administrator, mentor, sports icon and World War II veteran walked out of Johnson City’s Memorial Park Community Center gym to talk with The News & Neighbor, his pickleball-playing buddies bid him farewell.
“See ya coach” and “Take care coach,” his senior mates boomed from the bleachers as they gestured to him with thumbs up, purposeful waves and a nodding of heads – each respectful and deliberate.
Walker, who recently celebrated his 93rd birthday, is the oldest active pickleball player in the joint. Would anyone have thought otherwise? The US. Navy Veteran played football, basketball and tennis at Milligan in 1942. He would have added another sport to that list had duty not called.
“There was no baseball team, because so many boys had enlisted in the military because of the war,” Walker said. “I entered the Navy’s V-12 officer training program at Milligan and was in for two years. There were 135 colleges and universities in the U.S. that had Navy students, platoons and companies. Milligan was the only one that turned over its entire facilities for the Navy programs.”
The Piney Flats native lived on a farm prior to his entry into the military, and he still considers himself a country boy. He lived without electricity or refrigeration, but he said he and his family never talked about hardships. He refrains from the same regarding his tenure overseas.
In 1943, he went to Midshipmen’s School in Plattsburgh, N.Y. where he was commissioned as lieutenant.
“They were needing more and more officers at the time,” he said. “I went through amphibious training near San Diego and was assigned to train on rockets attached to the stern of landing boats. After that I was assigned to the USS Newberry. Our responsibility was to haul troops and supplies to Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
“My first trip to Iwo Jima, I landed there with a load of hand grenades and dynamite. We were straddled with mortars and splashed, but we didn’t get hit. We also would pick up wounded and take them back to the ship.”
So, was he scared?
“We just didn’t think about it,” he said. “We were scared and didn’t know it. On one of our early trips to shore, some injured guy was yelling on the beach, so we went down and picked him up. There were so many damaged boats, and the beaches were steep. A lot of boats were turned sideways, because of the waves. They couldn’t get off (unload).
“I came in one time and there were Japanese snipers. I saw a boat landing and it got hit with explosives. I remember seeing arms and legs flying up in the air. My boat was hoisted up to the ship, and the captain yelled, ‘Hell Walker, I thought you were dead.’”
After his stint in Iwo Jima, he trained to conduct similar missions in Okinawa and the Philippine islands, where there were more Navy casualties than any other spot during WWII. Floating mines were the norm, and Walker said he and his crew were always worried about being hit.
“We weren’t, thank goodness,” he said.
Part of his job was to use smoke to create a fog-like cover of the larger ships. For this he got the nickname “Smoky.”
He returned to Piney Flats unharmed in 1946, going right back to Milligan where he majored in health and physical education. A year later he married his college sweetheart Carolyn. The two celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in August.
“I married her for her money, and she married me for mine, and neither of us had any,” Walker said with a chuckle.
Walker’s athletic accomplishments are literally too numerous to list. Suffice it to say, he was a top-flight athlete in football, basketball, baseball and track. He began his coaching career in 1949 at Knoxville’s Farragut High School. He also coached at least one sport at Milligan for 52 consecutive years, as well as serving as the school’s athletic director. He has been inducted into the Milligan Sports Hall of Fame, Carter County Sports Hall of Fame, Northeast Tennessee Hall of Fame and Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
He noted two of his former players: Delmer “Del” Harris, who formerly coached the Los Angeles Lakers and Sonny Smith, former East Tennessee State University basketball coach.
“Sonny’s probably one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard,” Walker recounted. “He’d say, ‘I’m from Roan Mountain. It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.”
He started playing pickleball in the 1990s, and those pursuits have not ended. This from a man who once said about retirement: “A retired person is someone who gets up in the morning with nothing to do and goes to bed with only half of it done.”
“It’s a fun game, and it’s easily learned,” he said. “You can play as hard as your body will let you. I don’t think about keeping in shape; I just enjoy it.”