The thing I love most about Louisiana politics is its cast of unforgettable characters. For the last 30 years, one of the most colorful and lovable of those characters was my friend and mentor Joe Walker, a veteran pollster, political strategist and mentor to generations of politicos and students of government. Joe died suddenly last Thursday at age 74.
I met Joe in 1977 when I was an aspiring young political reporter for The Times-Picayune. "I want you to teach me about politics," I said to him. "I love this stuff, but I have a lot to learn and I can tell you know this game as well as anybody."
I didn't know at the time that Joe also had taught government and constitutional law for four years at Tulane and Loyola universities. It was my good fortune that I appealed to both his love of the game and his love of teaching. We became fast friends, and over the years he taught me just about everything I know or have figured out about politics.
Joe was one of the most multi-dimensional human beings I have ever known. An Air Force veteran, he enrolled in the first freshman class at the University of New Orleans in 1958 on the GI Bill. He was a member of UNO's first graduating class in 1962 and later earned a Master's in political science from Tulane. His doctoral dissertation compared tensions between the ancient Greek city-states to Cold War tensions between the United States and Russia. He never went to church, but he confided to me years ago that he read the Bible often.
He had a lifelong love for UNO. While a student, he and a group of fellow veterans (many were the same age as some of their teachers) helped quell budding racial tensions at the new campus. After his graduation, he founded and was the first president of the UNO Alumni Association. He had a close friendship with UNO's founding chancellor, the late Homer Hitt, and was one of Hitt's staunchest defenders during the fledgling campus' stormy early years. In 1996, Hitt and then-Chancellor Greg O'Brien gave Joe the alumni association's "life achievement award."
Joe was a man of great passions, and he indulged all of them. You could almost compartmentalize his life according to his passions. There was his academic era at Tulane and Loyola. During his Fair Grounds era, he wrote a computer program that calculated his own speed ratings. He and a friend opened a seafood market on Magazine Street during his "fishing era." Then there was his publishing phase. He and his longtime friend, legendary media consultant Jim Carvin, published the Carvin/Walker Report in the late 1980s. During his Bohemian phase, he and another pal, the late state Rep. Toni Morrison, became roommates after their respective divorces prompting some to dub them "The Odd Couple." In this case, they both played the role of Oscar Madison.
One thing about Joe, he was never boring. The stories about him are legendary.
In a game filled with reprobates, Joe was scrupulously honest and generous to a fault. He did far too many polls on credit and often got "stuck" by some of his "friends," but he never held it against them. Once, when a cop stopped him for having an expired brake tag, the officer offered to let him go if he promised to get a new tag right away. Joe thought for a second and replied in his trademark raspy voice, "Gee, coach, you better just give me the ticket. I'm really too busy to get it done today. I'm sorry."
To say that Joe loved to party would be the understatement of the year. From the 1970s to the mid-'90s, he was a regular at the Washington Mardi Gras Ball. He, the late Jim Monaghan and I started our own ball tradition in 1984: a Friday luncheon at Ruth's Chris Steak House, which was a short two blocks from the ball festivities. We didn't just meet at Ruth's, we paraded down Connecticut Avenue NW behind the Storyville Stompers brass band, with a uniformed New Orleans cop stopping traffic. It quickly became the hottest ticket at the ball, not just because seating was limited, but also because we paid for the food. Joe loved that lunch more than any other, and he had plenty of them over the years at Ruth's in New Orleans.
Joe also had a marvelous sense of humor, particularly at his own expense. His friend, then-NBC political correspondent Ken Bode, once included a sound clip of Joe in a report for NBC Nightly News. Joe was elated at the thought of being on network news during prime time. But when Bode's story aired, his name appeared on the screen as "Joe Wacker." He was crestfallen. Bode called Joe and promised to make it up to him. Sure enough, the next morning Bode's Today Show story had a clip from Walker with his name spelled correctly. Later that day, Joe thanked Bode for putting him on again that morning. "Why are you so happy about this morning's report?" I asked Joe. "All over America, people saw that and said, "Hey, look they spelled Wacker's name wrong!'" Joe laughed about that until the day he died, and some of us including Bode never stopped calling him "Wacker."
Less than an hour before he died, Joe was sitting in a hospital bed watching political news on TV, reading magazines and complaining that the Democrats were about to blow the election again. Right up to the end, he never lost his passion for the game.
I'll close with one last story about Joe, and it's my favorite. No matter how late he stayed out the night before, he always got up early on Election Day which was always a Saturday to spend the last day with his candidate. One election morning, as the sun was just coming up, he walked briskly to his car with a cigarette in one hand and a briefcase in the other. His wife Terry called out to him from the front door: "Joe, what time will you be back?"
He paused in thought for a half-beat, then answered, "No later than Wednesday."
Joe's friends and family will gather to celebrate his life at 4 p.m. Tuesday (Sept. 16) in the auditorium of the Lindy C. Boggs Conference Center at the UNO Research and Technology Park, 2045 Lakeshore Drive. Afterward, we will continue celebrating at a reception hall upstairs the way Joe would have wanted. Per Joe's wishes, his ashes will be placed in an urn above the bar at Molly's, right next to Jim Monaghan Sr.'s.
So long, Wacker. The game won't be the same without you.