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Jim Kenyon: A Fine Farewell for Woodsville’s Jim Walker

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Wednesday, June 07, 2017

A light rain fell outside the Ricker Funeral Home in Woodsville on Monday, where a standing-room-only crowd had gathered on a dark and gloomy morning to pay tribute to Jim Walker.

Not good weather for baseball.

But then again, in Walker’s eyes, any day without snow on the ground was, as the Cubs’ immortal Ernie Banks used to say, “a great day for a ball game, let’s play two.”

A case could be made that Jim Walker was the No. 1 fan of the Boston Red Sox in the Upper Valley. A season-ticket holder since the 1970s, Walker, scorebook in his lap, usually sat in section 31 on the third base side at Fenway Park for 50 games or so a year. Throw in spring training and the playoffs — in the years the team was good enough — and Walker’s attendance at Sox games probably approached triple digits some seasons.

On top of his stellar attendance record — in both good years and bad — Walker served as sort of an unofficial Red Sox ambassador to the Upper Valley. For decades, he was a source of reasonably priced tickets (well, as reasonably priced as tickets go for Boston sporting events) for fans wanting to make the pilgrimage to Fenway Park.

Walker, a graduate of Woodsville High School and the University of New Hampshire, joined his father’s car dealership in his hometown in 1967 — the same year that he married Jean Mileski, a schoolteacher new to town. Eventually they raised four children — Leslie, Laurie, Jamie and Robert. All baseball fans of varying degrees.

Along with offering Jeeps and Dodges, Walker branched out into the resale of Red Sox tickets in the 1970s. Becoming the middle man between Upper Valley fans and the team was a bit of a financial risk.

The Sox were deep into their championship drought and not nearly the hot ticket they are today. The team required Walker to buy tickets months in advance of the season. Any tickets that he didn’t sell, he had to eat.

Walker took out small newspaper ads to let fans know that he was in the ticket business. In 2002, I called the number for Walker Motor Sales in the ad.

At the time, Walker had six seats for each of the team’s 81 home games and 28 additional seats for weekend games. They cost about $55,000, he told me back then.

I was looking to buy two tickets. Walker charged just $10 above each ticket’s face value. Walker’s prices were a bargain compared to what large ticket broker companies were charging. Unlike his competitors, Walker didn’t tack on a handling fee. He also didn’t take orders online or credit card payments. He just asked you to mail a check.

And here’s the incredible part: Walker mailed the tickets to you before he even got your money.

“He was very trusting,” said his oldest daughter, Leslie, who now lives in Littleton.

I guess it also speaks to the trustworthiness of the Red Sox faithful because he “hardly ever got burned,” said his younger son, Robert.

I suspect the 150 people at the funeral home Monday who didn’t fall into the family category were friends or customers. Most likely, they were both.

With his self-deprecating sense of humor, Walker was a hard guy not to like. Walker wasn’t much for organized religion — unless you counted baseball — so his family turned to the funeral home’s owners, Bryan and Melissa Gould, for guidance in putting together the service.

Melissa Gould, who presided over the service, suggested celebrating Walker’s life over “nine innings.” Forty-five minutes into the service, Gould stopped for the seventh-inning stretch. Everyone stood for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Walker inspired a “love for baseball” in his children and grandchildren, Leslie Walker told me. He also managed to make the games into quality family time, she said. They traveled to spring training in Florida and to road games in Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. An autograph hound, he’d implore his wife to stuff a few more baseballs into her handbag before leaving for the ballpark.

He used the trips to Fenway to teach lessons beyond baseball. On the walk from their downtown Boston hotel to the ballpark, “I never saw him pass a homeless person without giving him money,” said his daughter, Laurie, of Annapolis, Md.

Jamie Walker, who like his brother lives in Woodsville, told me that his father often helped out struggling families in Woodsville and neighboring communities with the caveat that they not divulge where the money had come from.

During a dozen years on the school board, he fought to keep athletics, the arts, and music in the budget when others wanted to cut back. “He appreciated the value of a well-rounded education,” said Frank Stiegler, a friend and local banker.

And when local schools needed money for athletic uniforms or to borrow a van for a field trip? “They called Jimmy,” Stiegler said.

Walker was also longtime chairman of the town Republican Party. But it didn’t stop him from endorsing Jeanne Shaheen and a few other Democrats over the years. In 1994, he supported state Sen. Wayne King for governor. “It almost got him kicked out of the Republican Party,” Leslie Walker said.

Jean Walker, a Democrat, told me her husband was “more interested in the candidate than the party.”

The final innings of Walker’s life were tough. He suffered from a rare brain disorder called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) that affects movement, speech and memory. He stopped going to Fenway a few years ago. His sons have taken over the car dealership and the ticket business.

Walker died on May 28. He was 76.

Monday’s memorial service had its share of both tears and smiles, a fitting send-off for a devout Red Sox fan who helped spread the baseball gospel throughout the Upper Valley.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.