Crowds upon crowds of people shuffled slowly into Chilhowie Christian Church last Sunday evening to pay their final respects to beloved Chilhowie farmer, agriculture teacher and coach Will Walker.
The 30-year-old’s life was cut short in a Sept. 20 farming accident that sent shockwaves through the community.
“In my 27 years here, I’ve never seen a death in our community or school have the impact that his did,” said Mark Halsey, Walker’s former teacher, fellow colleague and athletic director at Chilhowie High School.
Halsey first got to know Walker when Walker began at CHS as a student in the early 2000s.
“He was very well-liked as a student, very friendly,” said Halsey, who taught Walker when Walker himself was an agriculture student.
Fellow classmate and friend Derrick Blevins called Walker an “extraordinary” human being who was admired by all.
“He was a very genuine, kind and thoughtful person,” Blevins said. “He had this million-megawatt smile that would light up a room. He was always very energetic and he cared a great deal about the people around him.”
On top of being a great student and friend, Walker was a committed athlete.
“Anything competitive or any kind of sport, he enjoyed playing it,” Halsey said.
Donning the number 22 jersey as a Warrior running back since middle school, Walker dedicated himself to athletics. If it wasn’t football season, he could be found scoring points on the basketball court or running around the baseball diamond.
Blevins said Walker made his number 22 legendary in Chilhowie.
His passion for sports spilled over into adulthood. Halsey said Walker and his friends continued to gather in the school’s gym on weeknights to shoot hoops well after graduation.
That passion for sports was equaled by his passion for agriculture. The grandson of the late William St. John, who retired from teaching agriculture at CHS nearly three decades ago, Walker spent much of his youth working on his grandfather’s farm. Those long hours spent working the farm nurtured a love for all things agriculture, Halsey said.
Following his high school graduation, Walker studied animal science at Virginia Tech and later returned to Chilhowie and Northwood high schools to help educate the next generation as an agriculture teacher.
“Will followed a very similar path as his granddaddy,” Halsey said, noting that Walker and his grandfather had a strong bond. “He taught in the same shop, in the same building. He was living in the same house as his granddaddy, farming the same land.”
During his employment at CHS, Walker returned to the football field and the basketball court to coach.
“A lot of the players on the team, Will had in class and he had a special kind of connection with those guys,” Halsey said. “They had a great year last year and he was looking forward to seeing what they’d do this year.”
To honor Walker’s memory, Warriors and Panthers alike donned the number 22 on their helmets during their Sept. 21 game. Walker’s number was further on display in the end zones.
Friends and colleagues say walker was an exemplary role model both in the classroom and on the sidelines.
“You just don’t replace Will Walker,” said CHS Principal Rocky Baker. “He was one of the kindest, most gentle people you’ll ever meet and it’s just amazing what kind of impact he’s had on our school community and our community as a whole. Will was just a perfect role model. He led by example. He would always listen, he had patience with his students and it was unbelievable how much the students would look up to him.”
“The students he dealt with daily here at the school—even the students not in his class—they liked him a whole lot,” Halsey said. “They respected him and enjoyed being around him. They were just drawn to him. His personality, his character, his sense of humor—he was just a magnet to them.”
Friends say Walker was a dedicated man who gave 100 percent in all that he did.
“He loved farming, his family, athletics and life,” Blevins said. “He wanted to share his knowledge by teaching, his physical prowess by coaching, and his heart by loving his friends and family.”
Walker and his wife, Ashley Spence Walker, welcomed a daughter, Emery Kate Walker, into the world only a few months ago.
“He was so excited that he and Ashley were having a baby and he felt blessed,” Halsey said. “He was a family person. Anytime he talked about his family, you could tell it was the biggest part of his life and it was all about them. You could tell how much he cared about them.”
Halsey recalled the day Walker announced his daughter’s birth.
“He was just so excited. He sent me a text with a picture and you could just see that proud look on him, that new father look. He was a great father and he was going to be a great father.”
Blevins said few people in the area are as universally respected and loved as Walker.
“It makes this loss that much greater, but all our lives, that much richer for having had someone like him in our community,” Blevins said.
Counselors were in place at CHS last week to help students cope with their grief. Three counseling stations were set up in the library, where students came and went freely.
Students and faculty alike have given suggestions for further tributes to Walker at the school. While no plans have been made at this time, Halsey and Baker said one is likely in the future.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, now and Will is without a doubt one of the most astounding young men I’ve ever been associated with,” Baker said. “He is going to be missed.”