Advocate of the Month: Lawyer counts the blessings of education
Feb. 12, 2011 at 6:04 p.m.
Updated Feb. 11, 2011 at 8:12 p.m.
Ron Walker did not expect to eat dinner, much less say the blessing before the meal.
No, he planned to visit a few minutes, make a good impression and then leave for another party. This was the late 1970s, after all, and Walker entertained a wilder side.
His future in-laws, however, had other ideas, and they demanded he and their daughter stay for dinner.
So, Walker settled into the stately home, one of many in River Oaks, an affluent, historic community planted in the geographic center of Houston. Here, homes cost no less than $1 million - many, considerably more - and the ZIP code is one of the wealthiest in the country.
The formal dining room table was set, decorated with candles, extravagant entrees and cloth napkins.
Walker's then future in-laws did not approve of the young Refugio native, at least not yet. Because this was just the second time they'd met, they only knew he had finished law school and grew up in the oil field camps. As a sign they wished their daughter dated another man, they referred to Walker as "what's his name?"
Walker pulled out his chair, studied for a moment the expensive bottles of wine and then turned to the patriarch, who spoke from the head of the table.
"Ron, why don't you say the blessing?" the father said, bowing his head.
Walker paused for an uncomfortable period of time. His thoughts swirled. You can almost imagine a grandfather clock ticking slowly, loudly. Finally, he spoke, and when he finished, he looked with pride toward his love.
The confused look on his girlfriend's face said he'd done something wrong, something embarrassing.
"Some months later," Walker explained, "my soon-to-be father-in-law said it was the first blessing he'd heard in which God thanked us for the meal. It was not a good performance."
Just as in many other areas of his life, Walker vowed that night to become adept in a subject in which he knew little, in this case pre-meal blessings. He studied books about blessings, memorized his favorites and even rehearsed them before dinners.
That desire - to become knowledgeable, astute, well-rounded - serves Walker to this day. He is a successful and sophisticated Victoria lawyer, a revered Victoria College board president and beloved family man and friend.
Walker is also a sought-after toastmaster, a man frequently called upon - oftentimes from out of the blue - to offer public remarks. The Lord knows Walker had practice.
After his dinnertime gaffe, the Houston patriarch for years called upon Walker to say blessings before every meal the family shared.
Just last month, Walker, now 61, stepped outside his Victoria law firm, a massive three-story stone building on East Constitution Street. The building, once a federal courthouse, cast a blue-gray shadow atop his silver Chevy Tahoe, which he climbed into.
Walker is a civil litigator whose clients include Union Carbide, Wells Fargo and Alcoa. He founded Walker, Keeling and Carroll in 1992, and was voted a "Texas Monthly" Super Lawyer every year since the award's inception about a decade ago.
As he turned onto Port Lavaca Highway, he switched gears - changing from stories about a trip to Greece with a friend, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada - to discuss education.
Walker joined the Victoria College board of trustees in 1985, just seven years after he married Kay, now his wife of 33 years, and moved to Victoria.
In 1984, David Lack, a well-known Victoria businessman, called him about an appointment to the board of trustees.
For their meeting, Lack invited a few fellow board members, patriarchs of another sort: Leo Welder and Thomas Marion O'Connor.
"In his profession, Ron Walker has good standings," O'Connor, 88, said, his voice deep and highlighted by a twang. "We knew him by his reputation and felt he would be someone who could help with problems the college had."
For 26 years, Walker has worked with others to elevate Victoria College to one of the top transfer schools in Texas, as recognized by The Pell Institute. Enrollment during his tenure grew from 2,939 to 4,335 students, according to the school.
Since May 2008, he served as board president, the role that drew him to Port Lavaca this cold January morning.
He parked his SUV and walked along a narrow sidewalk to the Wilkins Industrial Training Center, an airplane-hangar-sized building unveiled this day to train pipefitters, electricians and other craft professionals. About 50 people gathered inside.
Walker grabbed an event program and noticed, 14 lines down, his name.
"Oh," he said, straightening his colorful tie, which popped against the dark of his blue blazer. "I'm slated to give remarks."
Walker's father-in-law was renowned for his toasting gifts and, despite the rocky start, seems to have passed those talents down.
"I have two good pieces of news," Walker told the crowd moments later. "One is this building, obviously, and two: My remarks will be short."
The crowd laughed. Walker glided from left to right, turning slowly to ensure he addressed each corner of the crowd. He spoke seamlessly, as if he'd said it all before.
"Those who go through this center will be proud and productive citizens," he continued. "This is a great day for so many people."
Not bad for a man who stuttered in junior high school, had dyslexia and thus was shy for much of his early life.
Walker grew up in the oil fields of Refugio. His parents were hardworking, but neither went to college or performed public service.
Walker, on the other hand, graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 1974. Since moving to Victoria more than 30 years ago, he has, in part, served as:
President of the Victoria Economic Development Corp. and Victoria Country Club.
A member of Legal Aid, which provides legal services to the poor, the International Association of Defense Lawyers and the Victoria Planning Commission.
A Federal Bar Association member for the Southern District of Texas.
"The importance of higher education is immeasurable," Walker said as he left the ceremony. "It develops you in so many ways. Kids today need the same opportunities I had. Our great challenge is to make school more affordable, even though the state is cutting funding."
As he turned the corner, a man ran to meet him. The stranger thanked Walker for the civic work he performs. The man's eyes welled with tears as he discussed a local student who overcame homelessness to fund an education and earn a good-paying job.
"You asked why I do it, work as a public servant," Walker said in private, choking up a bit himself. "That's why I do it."
Walker returned to his law firm and changed into running shorts. Most days, he jogs three miles before lunch - from his office to Riverside Park and back.
During this particular jog, he told stories about books he reads, conversations he had and places in which he travels. The stories paint a sophisticated-yet-quirky picture.
Walker owns a modern country getaway home and property in Gonzales County - where Central Texas ends and South Texas begins. A vegetation line marks the break. Mesquite and cacti cover one half of his property; rolling hills, oaks and elm trees distinguish the other.
There, he befriended an exotic, wild deer, which the family named Felton because of its felt-covered horns. Felton regularly rubs his nose against the windows of Walker's home and eats strawberries out of the man's hand.
Because of his love of nature and wildlife, Walker often perches with his wife inside one of the property's deer blinds. Rather than hunting wild game, they opt instead to drink wine, read and enjoy the views.
"I don't mind just doing things, some of which have no purpose," Walker said, breathing only a tad noticeably two miles into his jog. "Once, we traveled to San Miguel with our friends and their adult children. We decided we wanted to try to find the best margarita in town. So, we formed teams and set out to find it. That makes no sense at all, but we just did it."
Don Pozzi, the Victoria County judge, talked about the man's lighter side.
"I just had dinner with he and the mayor two nights ago," Pozzi said. "Ron's wife decided to celebrate Groundhog Day and Chinese New Year's Eve. They're just fun people, the kind you're fortunate to count as your friends."
'RON IS A TEXAN'
Groomed foliage blankets the outside brick wall that hides a narrow courtyard and the front entrance to Walker's Victoria home, which is planted in the middle of College Park.
From the rounded driveway, the one-story home appears modest, uninteresting. Once inside, though, the view and sentiment changes at once.
The 6,000-square-foot, U-shaped home - which boasts glass on much of the back side, opening uninterrupted views to the pool and pavilion - is a testament to hard work, an affinity for design and the idea that first impressions often are misguided.
Walker sat in his wood-paneled study, one of many wide, doorless rooms open to the overly wide, tall hallway that stretches forever in both directions.
On this Thursday night, two days before the couple's 33rd wedding anniversary, he poured wine and sank into a sofa. His wife, Kay, sat nearby.
"Ron is a Texan," she said, softly swirling her drink. "He embodies those characteristics: strong, independent. He knows the lay of the land. He comes from a modest background, but he has worked very hard. My family had concerns, but I just saw a really good person who shared the same values. I cannot imagine my life without him."
Early in their marriage, the Walkers, who now have two adult children, attended a wine-tasting event. Because Walker knew little about wine, he researched the drink. He pored over books and transcribed his studies onto index cards. During the tasting, he hid the cards in his inside jacket pocket.
Each time the server poured a new wine, Walker sneaked a peek at the appropriate card, each time hiding his cheat from the small crowd. Then, as if he knew it all along, he discussed the wine in detail.
"I always felt like I had to work harder because of where I'm from," he said. "You need to apply yourself. Success comes when opportunity meets preparation."
Walker's friends seem to appreciate his work ethic and lighthearted side.
"He's so special in so many ways," Janey Lack, a Victoria businesswoman, said. "He has a real charm and intelligence. He listens with his whole body. There's something very wonderful about that."
For a man renowned for his preparation outside the courtroom and in life, Walker said he has no concrete plans for tomorrow.
"I just live life and see where it leads," he said. "I can't tell you where I'll be in five years. I'm not a goal setter and I'm not a counter. I can't tell you how many trials I've won, for example. I wing it a lot."
He said that last bit with a sparkle in his eye, a nod, perhaps, to the dry sense of humor his friends rave about. In honor of that, he ends this night in his home by explaining the reason why he's successful at law.
"The one thing you have to have to win at jury trial is sincerity," Walker said. "Once you learn to fake that, you'll be just fine."