Woman in search of father's lost voice

Lenoir, Cubs baseball great Rube Walker's interviews lost to time
Jan. 21, 2013 @ 08:00 PM

Leigh Ann Young’s memories of her father come on yellowed pieces of newsprint and in the history books of the Chicago Cubs. Her face is a living memory of his. Her quest is to discover his voice.

She’ll never hear him dispense words of wisdom, advice on dating, or expressions of tender feelings.

“Even if I couldn’t hear him tell me anything, maybe I could hear his voice,” she said.

Her father, Verlon Walker, was one of the more prominent athletes to come from Lenoir. He was a minor league catcher from 1948 to 1959 and a minor league manager from 1957 to 1960, but he was best known as the pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs from 1961 to just before the 1971 season. His brother, Albert Bluford Walker, played 11 seasons total as a catcher for the Cubs and Dodgers. Both brothers were known by the nickname Rube, but Albert was better known. Lenoir’s Walker Stadium was named for them.

Verlon Walker died March 24, 1971, at age 42, eight days before his daughter turned 3. Young, now 44 and living in Charlotte, has no memory of him, only of the stories that her mother, Ann George of Lenoir, told her and the clippings, photos and trinkets her mother kept, “rings, glasses, things like that.”

“I tried to tell her as much about her dad,” George said, “things she would like to remember and stories he told.”

Walker was a notorious storyteller and comedian. George said he told Cubs staff many tall tales about Lenoir, which he described as the best city in North Carolina. His obituary, distributed by United Press International, said that Walker often was teased by Cubs personnel for being “Lenoir’s ambassador to the world.”

Walker’s brothers, Albert and youngest brother Leslie, tried to fill the role of father figure, but George remembers a time when Young, then in first or second grade, became upset about not having a father.

“I tried to pacify her with stories and tell her how much he loved her,” George said.

Young said she felt the void opening again after watching her husband, Dennis, with their children, Walker, now 11, and Christopher, 5.

“When I had children I started to feel the need to pursue the role of the father,” she said. The way her husband spoke with their children particularly resonated. “I realized I don’t have that.”

George’s stories about Walker gave Young an idea.

“My mother said my father enjoyed doing radio interviews,” she said. “... He was just a character.”

She has been trying to find some remnant of one of those interviews. Unfortunately, at the time most recordings were on reel-to-reel tape, and it was common practice to reuse old tapes, new recordings replacing the previous ones.

As her search and frustration mounted, a friend suggested starting a blog about her quest as a way to spread the word. She started Baseball Love Story (baseballlovestory.com) on Dec. 29, 2011, writing of her mission:

“The voice of a present and loving father is an anchor that grounds your soul. A consoling, calming, uplifting force in a little girl's life. The sound of it comforts and guides. As a child, I would listen to other fathers’ voices and wonder how my dad’s voice would sound. What would he say to me? What would he tell me? ...

“In this blog I want to write about the love story my father had with baseball, the love story he had with my mother.... in the process find his voice and possibly my own.”

The blog radiates love for not only her father but the game of baseball, and especially the Cubs, as in a post from Oct. 10 that said: “Every Cubs fan has uttered these word with incredible optimism and amnesia, ‘This is the year the Cubs will win.’ Following the heartbreaking 1969 season the team, the fans and the Wrigleys walked onto the field in 1970 with a renewed faith. I love this about the Cubs. I feel like my father’s mild manner and humor was just the perfect match for this team. Cynics everywhere be damned! The Cubs WILL win.”

She likens that eternal optimism to her own search against long odds to find a record of her father’s voice. And like the faithful of Wrigley Field, she finds something to be positive about.

“I figured if I created some energy around it something would happen,” she said, and something has: support from strangers, such as three women who have emailed her about their own quests to fill the void of an absent father figure, and people who have offered tips and leads, though none so far have panned out. “It’s like there’s all this great generosity still around my father that’s coming toward me.”

She also feels that the process of writing about what little she does remember, and what she has found, has helped her gain a better sense of Verlon Walker.

“I’m kind of piecing together a man I didn’t know,” she said. “... I’m bringing him closer into my heart.”