At Claude Walker Park
When a friend who had googled me found a "Claude Walker Park" in Knoxville, Tennessee, my first thought was "how nice of them to name a park after me". My googly pal said, uh, it may be another Claude Walker. Mine is an uncommon name (only two other Claude Walkers in Chicago's 893-page phone book) and the only other Claudes in my own family tree - my dad and grandfather - are long gone. There's a Florida realtor, a South Carolina politician, a German artist, but that's about it for Claude Walkers. I have no known kin in Knoxville.
The City of Knoxville's website quickly directed me to the 4-acre "Claude Walker Park/Ballfields" a few miles northeast of downtown..."adjacent to the Dr. E.V. Davidson Community Center and Austin East Magnet School". I learned the park has two softball fields (one with a majestic 354' center field) and a concession stand. The website touts recent renovations to the field and information on reserving the space for football.
But there was no info on who this Claude Walker was.
I did an online search and called a few government agencies, to no avail. I had to see the park for myself and maybe resolve the mystery of this other Claude Walker.
So on the way home from a Gatlinburg family reunion, I exited the Interstate and plunged into East Knoxville. 92 degrees, unforgiving sun. After many twists and turns, I found it, tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood, with a weather-beaten wooden sign proclaiming "Claude Walker Park/Ballfields". This must be how Old Man Wrigley felt the first time he saw Wrigley Field.
Sadly, the diamonds at this baseball shrine were empty, odd for a sunny summer morning; kids are inside playing videogames...perhaps baseball videogames.
Upon closer inspection, I see these diamonds need polishing. The infield sparkles with broken glass. The broadcast booth features condoms, dog poop and a syringe. The water fountains filled with sand. The concession stand, dugouts and backstops seem new, but graffiti had broken out.
I run the bases at both diamonds, then break out the 16" Chicago-style softball and monster bat from my trunk and hit a few fungoes on Diamond #1. Did the other Claude Walker play on this diamond? My last shot rolls all the way to the right field fence.
Looking to see if anyone witnessed my mighty swat, I see a vanload of utility company workers pull up. Any of you guys know who Claude Walker was? Nope. I ask at the community center. Maybe an umpire or something to do with softball, someone offers. Getting close, I think.
I stroll to the nearby football field, where grunting prep athletes are doing drills. Someone on the sidelines thinks Claude Walker was with the park district.
I explore the neighborhood, wondering if Claude Walker lived here. The streets are eerily deserted, but ACs are humming. I take one last tour of my namesake ballpark, remove some broken glass at first base and head home, feeling slightly more connected to this other Claude Walker, still an enigma.
Months later, I searched "Claude Walker" and "Knoxville", and discovered a U.S. Navy vet who had died in 2007 after spending four decades with the municipal recreation leagues.
Claude Anderson Walker was a graduate of Austin H.S. - Knoxville's first African-American high school - and devoted his life to keeping inner city kids out of trouble through sports.
That's pretty impressive and it is impressive, too, that the City of Knoxville recognizes such people doing such good deeds. Claude Anderson Walker's legacy, though, extends beyond the friendly confines of "Claude Walker Park/Ballfields" to the young people whose lives he touched over four decades. A high bar for the rest of us Claude Walkers.