June 11, 2009
At the age of 101, David "Jeff" Walton is believed to be the oldest Knox alumnus ever to return for a class reunion, as he celebrated the 80th anniversary of his graduation from Knox in 1929.
Walton was a guest of honor at Knox's 2009 Commencement on Saturday, June 6. Walton was greeted with an ovation from graduates, families and guests, as Knox President Roger Taylor stepped down from the speaker's podium to shake Walton's hand.
Walton told the Galesburg Register-Mail that this year's graduates should "try to understand what's going on all around them and think about what they are going to take from here."
Walton was born January 4, 1908 in Denver, Illinois. He later moved with his family to Bowen, Illinois, where he grew up and attended school while working on his father's farm.
Walton came to Knox in 1925, completing the bachelor of science curriculum that Knox offered at the time. He played baseball and football and joined Phi Delta Theta fraternity. At Knox healso met Virginia Lacey, who later became his wife.
Upon graduation in 1929, Walton returned to Bowen and was considering trying out for professional baseball. His mother encouraged him to first go to Chicago to see if he couldn't find a job. She told him that if that didn't work out, that he could always pursue baseball. He was hired at the first place he applied, Bell Telephone Labs. He trained in Chicago and later at the Bell Research Laboratory in Baltimore.
Soon after Jeff arrived in Baltimore came the stock market crash on "Black Thursday" November 23, 1929, ushering in the Great Depression. In 1933, Walton recalls, his boss called him in and asked him if he was considering getting married. Walton replied that it had been discussed but there were no immediate plans. His boss told him that he might consider it as they would soon have to begin laying off workers and that they would start with those who were unmarried, to try and protect families.
Walton said that his thought was: "I am a smart young man with a college degree; I will always be able to find work." A few months later he was laid off and, unable to find work, he returned to Bowen. His next job was pushing a roller chair at the Chicago World's Fair. Ironically, this was one job that did require a college degree -- it was the Fair's way of limiting the number of applicants to hundreds instead of thousands. He worked at the Fair from May 27 until November 1, 1933. Originally the fair was scheduled to end in 1933, but it was so successful it was opened again from May 26 to October 31, 1934. On December 30, 1934 Jeff and Virginia were married. For the next year and a half Jeff worked where ever he could find a job. He also served in the U.S. Army Reserves at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, attaining the rank of First Lieutenant.
In April 1936 Walton was hired by United Airlines in Chicago. This began a series of moves that would continue for the next several decades in his career in customer service management with United. After training in Chicago he was sent to Seattle, Washington. After about one year, he relocated to Reno, Nevada, where the first of three Walton children, Connie, was born. After two years in Reno, it was back to Chicago for a year, then to Salt Lake City, Utah, where son Michael was born in 1941. After a few years in Salt Lake City it was back to Chicago once again. Late in 1944, he was moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where the Waltons' third child Tim was born.
Early in 1945 Walton relocated again, this time to Cleveland, Ohio. The family remained in Cleveland until 1962 when he was transferred to Youngstown, Ohio, and the family lived in nearby Poland, Ohio. Walton retired from United in 1963 after 36 years of service. Virginia passed away in the fall of 1987. In 2006 Walton joined his son Tim in Atlanta, and they now live near Jacksonville, Florida.
Jeff Walton says that he played golf until he was 99, and thanks to his extensive travel with United Airlines, he says he has played courses all over the world.
Walton told the Galesburg Register-Mail that he didn't recall much about his own graduation 80 years ago "when he prepared to set forth into the world. But clearly, as his effort to travel from Florida to Galesburg for the ceremony demonstrated, Knox still holds a place close to his heart."
Top, Knox President Roger Taylor with Timothy Walton, David "Jeff" Walton and Megan Clayton, coordinator of Fifty Year Club activities.
Center, President Taylor greets Jeff Walton during the Commencement.
Below left, Mr. Walton acknowledges the ovation from graduates and Commencement guests.
Photography by Peter Bailley and Even Temchin.