Nearly 70-strong gathered July 5 to celebrate and remember the extraordinary life of David Walker.
Born April 4, 1952, Walker died June 12 from late stage stomach cancer. As in life, he was surrounded by people who loved him.
Organizations and individuals from across the rainbow spectrum assembled in Harrisburg’s Metropolitan Community Church of the Spirit for a service led by Interim Pastor Rev. Charles Tigard. Noting that Walker was their official “groupie,” Harrisburg Men’s Chorus rendered three meaningful selections that portrayed with song the essence of Walker’s life of sacrifice and volunteering in his community.
His surviving partner, William O’Donnell, himself a member of the chorus, was joined in the pews by his father Jerry and mother Nancy. O’Donnell sang the same songs with the chorus earlier that day when the group entertained along the Susquehanna River for the city’s American Music Festival. The chorus’ invitation to perform this year, as they had the previous year, was special because last year a gospel group used their time to give a “sermon” about the “sins” of homosexuality. Dismayed, Harrisburg’s parks and recreation director did not invite the gospel group back. Instead she asked the men’s chorus to perform their usual songs of unity and inspiration. “David would have invited the gospel group into a dialogue. He’d have tried to ease the tensions through education,” one person remarked after his service.
In keeping with Walker’s notable sense of humor, those selected to remember him shared funny stories, a sharing that continued after the formal service in the church’s dining room where those in attendance shared a meal provided by O’Donnell’s family.
In his remarks, William’s father Jerry was a three-dimensional example of how Walker’s gentle talking with others often created understanding. “I’m a Republican fire-fighter from New Jersey. If you can get me to understand you doing pretty good,” he said right off to an immediate outburst of laughter. He explained in the simple terms of a loving father “William is my son. I don’t always understand everything. No parent does. But his partner David was always willing to talk and to respect our differences,” he shared. He explained that when one fire-fighter calls another fire-fighter “brother” it means they trust each other with their lives. “We ended up calling each other ‘brother’,” the senior O’Donnell said of Walker to a hushed room.
Walker’s partner William O’Donnell shared that he missed “his cheerful, easygoing personality.” Walker was always volunteering for something. Besides a multiyear volunteer, he was chair of Central PA Pride Festival 2006-2008, a founding member of Central PA Stonewall Democrats, active with Cumberland County Democrats, and Metropolitan Community Church of the Spirit. He was the voice legions of callers first heard when they called the now defunct Gay and Lesbian Switchboard of Harrisburg.
“David inspired leaders of our community to achieve their best and to renew their diligence at working towards our common cause. He was never hostile or mean to me or anyone. We had arguments, but we were always able to work through them without losing sight of our love and respect for each other. I loved him, and he made me happy. He was a fantastic cook. He baked the best lasagna I have ever tasted. Simple, I know, but simple things count for a lot,” O’Donnell said.”
Mark Smith, Central PA Pride Parade Chair, emailed that “David was a kind and gentle soul. He was very supportive the second year of the parade when Dan Stroup was charged with forming a committee to work on the parade and raise necessary funds to cover expenses. We continued to work with David when Dan stepped down as parade chair and Donald (Smith’s partner) took over. During that time period, David was instrumental in navigating Pride through the dissolution of the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard of Harrisburg and out on it’s own as a project under The Foundation for Enhancing Communities (TFEC).
At the end of the 2008 Pride Festival, Walker passed the torch. Smith offers this insight into the work of Walker: “As we celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, I am grateful to those like the Stonewall Vets and later Harvey Milk who made it possible for the lgbt community to live outside the closet. I believe David’s generation made it possible for my generation not to have to go the route of becoming involved with heterosexual marriage just because that’s what society expected. I hope and believe that my generation is making it easier for lgbt youth to come out at an earlier age and even think about taking someone of the same-sex to the prom. I think David would be proud of the work the current Pride Board and committees are doing.
Close friend and confidant Dale Schauer also made those assembled laugh with his “David stories.” They had become friends many years ago and shared endless hours of fun and food.
Dan Stroup, whom Walker had mentored as he produced the region’s first Pride Parade, talked about how Walker had lovingly distracted him from his sister’s terminal illness. Walker then showed up after her death to help him grieve with dignity.
Alanna Berger, representing Silent Witnesses, an organization that protects the lgbt community and its supporters from protestors in public spaces, said “In looking back over the past several years that I’ve worked on the Pride Committee, the one person who was a constant beacon was David Walker. We will all miss him. The Pride Committee had plans to honor him for all the years he dedicated to the festival, both as a volunteer and as president – and of course, we still will.
Walker is survived by his partner William O’Donnell, and a wide community of friends. He is the son of the late Elwood P. Walker and Gail (McConahy) Walker, who survives him. He is also the widower of M. Larue Walker and is also survived by his sister Kathleen E. Strong and her husband William C. Strong of Altoona, PA, and two brothers, Eugene R. Walker of Altoona, PA, and Kenneth P. Walker and his wife Judith of Vancouver, WA, three nephews, and one great-nephew.
Like it says on his t-shirt – Live, Love, Be Proud! We’ll miss you David.