Walter Russell, college professor, classically trained pianist, scion of the famous Russell family, at ease with people at any level of society, and friend to all who met him was truly a Renaissance Man. But to everyone in harness racing, he was simply “Judge Russell”.
Alabama, Vanderbilt, Peabody, Julliard, Oxford, North Carolina, Georgia College, Georgia Tech, American University, Emory University. It’s a toss-up whether Walter worked at more race tracks or attended and taught at more schools. That is because his love of harness racing was matched only by his intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Before the proliferation of racing dates, Walter spent the summers at race tracks and the other nine months first earning degrees at renowned colleges and universities, then teaching at them. As the job opportunities and salaries in racing proliferated, he spent more and more time as a racing official.
I met Walter at Rosecroft Raceway in the early 1960’s. He was the Presiding Judge and one of my responsibilities was in the judge’s stand as backup timer and placing judge. Almost immediately, Walter called me W.E., which no one else ever did but he knew that’s what my grandfather’s close friends had called him. That got my attention and as I observed him effortlessly and efficiently manage the judges stand with a firm but (unless challenged) gentile manner, I recognized that this man was someone special. One thing led to another and we quickly became lifelong friends, of whom he had legions. When the Maryland circuit expanded their race dates, Walter moved to Washington and lived across the street from my young family near Georgetown. He became the godfather to my daughter and has always affectionately been called Uncle Walter by my children.
The intervening fifty years have flown by. In 1969, I moved to Winchester, Virginia to start a manufacturing company. While our careers took us in different geographical directions, the dialogue never stopped. After the release of Hemingway’s posthumous biographical book “A Moveable Feast”, Walter referred to me as a Hemingway Man. He never totally explained his reasoning—only offering oblique references to a commonality of interest in sports, competition, rituals, and admiration of grace under pressure.
It has often occurred to me that Hemingway’s book was a very good description of our times together–whether it was a trip to Europe where he almost died in Spain of a misdiagnosed appendicitis or our annual pilgrimages to the Hambletonian or to Lexington or to visit the training centers in the South or just relaxing and telling stories. OK! Listening to Walter tell stories. Walter was Google before Google. He had virtually an encyclopedic memory and recall of every horse, every race, and every person he had encountered on his life’s journey. Wherever we went, Walter seemed to know everyone and their family’s back story.
His stories were classic sitting- on- the- front- porch- at- sundown southern narratives and he could subtly drop a name with the best of them. One evening he casually mentioned that some years ago, he was reading a review of a novel in the Sunday New York Times when he recognized it as a story a classmate at Alabama had told him. Further inquiry revealed the classmate was Harper Lee and the book “To Kill a Mockingbird”. When he taught at Georgia College in Milledgeville, he became good friends with Flannery O’Connor, the renown recluse writer and essayist, and always chuckled when quoting her comment “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic”. A few years ago Walter started to tell a story to Tom Charter’s wife, then said: “Sue, stop me if you have heard this before… (pause)… Tom, I think you’ve heard all my stories. I no longer see any point in us remaining friends!”…followed by his mischievous smile featuring the raising of his eyebrows and warm chuckle. “
Walter was a pushover for my son. On a visit in the 1980’s, I had scored three tickets for Billy to a sold out Bruce Springsteen concert at RFK Stadium in Washington. One of his friends had gotten sick and couldn’t go, so Billy convinced Uncle Walter to go with them. The next day, I asked a bleary eyed Uncle Walter how it went. He said: “It was an interesting experience. It was very loud, couldn’t really hear much singing. Of course, there was a lot of drinking and drugs— not by us– but I got along fine until some boy threw up all over my shoes. I think it was my last rock concert.”
You can take the boy out of the south but you cannot take the south out of the boy. To understand the man Walter was, you have to understand where and by whom he was raised. Sanders, his Hall of Fame father, was the most admirable man I have ever known—he wasn’t called “The Preacher” for nothing. Evelyn, his mother, was a force of nature. After a conversation with her, you know where Walter got his laugh.
And then there is Stevenson, Alabama. Back in the days when President Andrew Jackson was signing over land grants to worthy settlers, Walter’s great, great grandfather had been given a large acreage of farm land just outside of Stevenson. Towering majestically to the rear of the Russell farm is Russell Mountain. Families don’t have whole mountains named after them for no reason. It is because generations of the Russell family had been very civic minded. Active in the church, charities, banking and in all community projects from housing transient TVA workers to adding wings on the hospital, the Russell family leaves much more than a farm and a mountain behind them as their legacy to Stevenson, Alabama.
While we frequently talked on the telephone, the last time I saw Walter was at his induction into the Hall of Fame in Goshen, NY. Since Tom Charters had a meeting to attend, he asked me if I would be sure Walter got to the taping of the Cracker Barrel interview in the library. To my surprise it was just Sam McKee, Kathy Parker, a video tape technician, and me. I was looking for an inconspicuous place to observe the interview when Kathy and Sam suggested I sit at the table next to Walter and be part of the proceedings. The interview went on for well over an hour and a good time was had by all. I have a DVD of the interview which I will always treasure as a wonderful reminder of my lifelong friend.
I am thankful I had the opportunity to meet and be friends with Walter Russell, a man who enriched the lives of me and my family more than I can express.