The secret life of H. Fred Walker

Monday, May 8th, 2017 at 5:00 PM
The secret life of H. Fred Walker by Dakota Palmer

Chances are, if you’ve seen Edinboro University President Dr. H. Fred Walker around campus, he’s been confidently walking, sporting a suit coat, button-up shirt, dress shoes and golden tie clip, engraved with a W.

But in the mid-1980s, he wore a very different kind of uniform.

Before Edinboro, Walker spent nine years in the Navy, working with airborne electronics systems.

“I went into the military to lend some structure to my life that wasn’t there at the time,” he said. “I was engaged with starting college, and I could see I wasn’t ready and what lacked was the structure. Plus, I came from a military family, so it seemed like a natural progression.”

He continued: “One of the things I learned in the Navy that stays with me the most is that I got a chance to do neat things and I got a chance to do things I didn’t want to do; I learned early on that how you think about the experiences life gives you is up to you.”

His father was in the Air Force, and originally, Walker also wanted to join the Air Force.

“The Air Force was so highly selective at that point in time, that I just wasn’t qualified to get in,” he said. “So, I started asking myself some very specific questions, [such as], ‘if you’re going to go into the military, what kind of environment would you want to be in?’”

Walker said he didn’t want to go into the Army for fear of being deployed into some places that “may or may not be hospitable,” so he chose the Navy because of the “controlled environment.”

But, while the environment may have been mostly controlled, he still encountered some scary situations.

Walker recalled a story from when he was first deployed on an aircraft carrier that pulled out from the Philippines.

“While I was on this boat, the commanding officer came on the communications system and said Vietnam has contacted the ship and said if we come within 200 miles of the coast line, they were going to launch missiles on us.”

He continued: “They showed us a map of where all these missile placements were, and the commanding officer set about the task of loading about everything that would fly. The next morning when I woke up, the commanding officer called over the communications systems and invited everyone to come up to the flight deck where you could see palm trees; we were that close [in Vietnam]. You can see 14 miles from the surface of the horizon, you could see palm trees really clearly.”

Walker said while he was at sea, he thought about his family, what he was going to do with his life, how he was going to go about reaching the next step of his life, and what the next interesting place he would travel would be.

When asked what he missed the most while he was at sea, he responded with, “some plain, seasoned home cooking.”

He went on to mention that he missed being able to have communication with home, as well.

“At the time, you would go to a port and get in line at a bank of phones, and they might have 20 or 40 phones, but there’s 10,000 people in a battle group that pull in all at the same time. So, you sit there for a very short amount of time and say ‘hi, I’m here’ then you can’t really talk about what you’re doing.”

He said during his time in the Navy he was able to see many interesting things and travel interesting places.

“When you’re out at the ocean and there’s no lights, some nights you just can’t see any stars and it’s so dark,” he said. “Some nights, it’s starry and you look up and can see satellites or airplanes going across the sky, but boy, you seem so insignificant. You stand there and it’s 360 degrees all the way around you; it’s like a giant planetarium.”

His biggest regret, in general, is that he wasn’t focused earlier in his life. Walker was a non-traditional student when he eventually did attend college.

“Had I known what I wanted to do right at that point in time and had I the focus to get it done, life might have been a lot different — I can’t say that’s good or bad because I feel very fortunate in my life,” he explained.

“As I did grow up and go into the military, I realized that I wasn’t focused enough fast enough to climb to high levels of the military, and that’s when I started to think about higher education,” he said.

While he was in the Navy, he earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial technology from California State University-Fresno. In 1992, Walker was honorably discharged from the Navy. That same year, he earned a master’s degree of business administration.

Now hooked on higher education, Walker went on to complete his doctoral degree in industrial education and technology from Iowa State University in 1995. He received a master’s of engineering degree in systems engineering from the same school in 1999.

Walker served as a faculty member of the department of technology at the University of Southern Maine for 13 years, including service as department chairperson. For eight years, he served as the dean of the college of applied science and technology at RIT.

Walker said that his greatest achievement is being at Edinboro.

“This is the pinnacle of what I’ve set for my life’s goals and I’m fortunate in that I’ve been able to achieve it. This wasn’t a stepping stone, so I feel content and very honored,” he said.

His biggest motivation is to “really get out in front and help this university be the best university that it can possibly be.”

“That’s motivating and inspiring to me, to be able to even be in a position to help that conversation,” he said.

His philosophy in life is one of public service and treating people honorably.

“That’s really important to me, because I think that you should do the right thing, whether or not you think somebody’s looking at you,” he said. “That says a lot.”

But, beyond the professional clothes and demeanor — beyond the scholastic jobs and degrees — he is a husband, father, son and outdoorsman.

Walker’s biggest inspiration is his father.

“I gained a lot of impressions of life based on his career, his life, his values and I’ve tried to emulate those a lot,” he said.

His father passed away when he was only 10 years old, and the man spent four of those years in Vietnam.

“It’s interesting how much someone like that imprints on you before you even realize it’s going on,” Walker said. “I’ve tried to do a lot of things in my life saying, ‘how would my dad look at that.’ And so I’d love to get to know him at a level that I sort of know myself to see whether the impressions that I have in my mind were real, or if they were something that I made up just because it was easier for myself filling in the gaps.”

Now, Walker and his wife, Dr. Susan Newman, have five children ranging from school-age to adults. Walker said in his free time he loves to hunt, fish, kayak and partake in archery. He has always wanted to go on a hunting trip out west in Montana, Colorado or Wyoming. Additionally, he practiced mixed martial arts for four years; he also thinks it would be interesting to travel to Madagascar.

According to Walker, he has two secret talents: archery and “an odd ability to make up and sing short songs.” When asked if he has any collections, he responded: “I collect everything. I collect tools, I have some coins and I have sporting equipment.”

He thinks his friends would describe him as someone who has a side of silly, slapstick humor. He wants to be remembered as someone who is kind, compassionate and empathetic, but who can get things done.

When asked what he learned in the Navy that he applies to his current role, he replied: “Commitment and perseverance. I spent a lot of time taking and retaking classes after I found out that I didn’t do as well in them as I wanted to do, and the military brought a regimen and a structure. These are the kinds of things that we learn going through college and certainly after college once you’re in the employment world; that was really helpful for me.

“You can choose to be really happy and appreciative, or you can choose to be angry and bummed out,” he said. “I always look for the positive side and that sustained me, because a lot of times (while he served in the Navy) when I was floating out on the ocean for six and a half months at a time, I just learned to make the most of what’s around me and appreciate the here and now while thinking about the future.” 

Dakota Palmer is the news editor for The Spectator. She can be reached at eupnews.spectator@gmail.com.

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