When young Dr. John Walker set foot on the campus of Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln in 1969 to begin his third year of teaching college-level philosophy, he did not know he was entering a golden era of creativity at the school.
But four decades later, the professor thumbs through his own recently published book, “What the Hoops Junkie Saw: Poems, Stories, and Reflections on the Passing Scene.” He allows that the years with creative teaching colleagues like Bill Kloefkorn, the late Nebraska State Poet; Ken Haruf, author of novels “Plainsong” and “Eventide”; and Leon Satterfield, local newspaper columnist, were special and unusual.
“It was just a great community,” said Walker, adding that it included great teachers such as Mary Smith in English and Louis DeGrazia in religion. “I spent 33 years teaching at Wesleyan and I loved every year,” he said.
With obvious regret, he notes that “hoops” was forced off his list of activities by arthritis and the passing years. Basketball may have had its day but, at 72, Walker says, writing, cooking and the one thing he probably is most widely known for, his music, have lasted.
This spring he took a small break from 40 years of singing and playing guitar in performance for a complete shoulder replacement. Walker’s last appearance was May 3 but he will be at Lincoln RibFest on Aug. 9 at 11:30 a.m., with more bookings after that. He already has been sneaking on stage unannounced to break in the new shoulder.
Walker has been a frequent performer at the Zoo Bar in Lincoln, including in what he has called its “high old days.” In notes, not included in his book, he writes he was “at once intimidated and honored to be splitting tunes with probably the last of the great Mississippi Delta bluesmen,” Magic Slim, on three different acoustic nights at the Zoo. That, and his appearance as Nebraska’s representative at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., at its State Days celebration, are notable moments in his life on stage.
His book includes essays, short stories and poems. Some pieces express the place of basketball in his life and the value of its patterns and rhythms. Here’s an excerpt from an essay:
Should I play, bad knees and all? If I do, maybe it will happen.
Maybe we will all get in a flow that takes us outside ourselves. Somebody knows without looking that a teammate is going to make a break for the hoop and gets him the ball with a bounce pass through two defenders and the shooter lays it in with a grace that seems drawn from some celestial artist’s canvas.… Everybody smiles, just happy to be there. (from “Of Hoops, Church, and Democracy,” page 168)
The book is impressionistic, not strictly autobiographical, with realistic shots of Walker’s life in it. It is drawn on the background of a Methodist “preacher’s kid” born and raised in Oklahoma. The family moved on a regular schedule, “every three years,” Walker said, “always to small towns, the largest one with a population of about 2,500.” He has fond memories of his upbringing.
When it came time for college, he went to the University of Oklahoma City, which, like Nebraska Wesleyan, had its origins as a Methodist college but that now retains only a historical affiliation.
Walker said he had a friend who was going to graduate school at a place called Brown University in Providence, R.I. “I didn’t know anything about it, but I was determined to get out of Oklahoma, and it sounded OK,” he said. “I had never heard of the Ivy League.”
He arrived in jeans and cowboy boots, he said, which probably were no stranger than the Ivy League suits and penny loafers without socks that he soon saw on campus. “I talked funny, but so did they,” he said, remembering his adjustment to Brown.
Accepted in American Studies, he ultimately earned a Ph.D. in philosophy. Returning to the Midwest, Walker took his first job teaching philosophy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “It was a commuter college without dorms. I took the job because I wanted to see the Cardinals play,” he said. “You know, I never did see the Cardinals play.”
At Wesleyan in the mid-1980s, he, Kloefkorn, Satterfield and Jim Stillman, then campus Chaplain, formed a writers’ group, after they all had participated in a writers’ workshop.
“At the first meeting Jim brought a homily, Bill brought a poem, Leon brought an essay and I brought a song. My piece was entitled ‘Put Your Snout to the Spout and We’ll Get Glory Drunk,’” said Walker. Over the years, others, including Mary Pipher, Twyla Hansen, Marge Saiser and Randy and Jane Moody joined the group, some passing through, and others staying. Walker remains a member of the group.
In June he was finalizing an essay entitled “Turning Off MSNBC: An old liberal’s look at how some new telegenic liberals give liberals a stinky name”:
Chris Matthews is a bully and an egotist … Turn him off … If anyone on cable television is more supremely self-absorbed than Bill O’Reilly, It could be Lawrence O’Donnell … Turn him off.
His book is for sale on the same website fans have been going to for CDs of his music and that of his many musical cohorts — prairiedogmusic.com. A stranger in the new landscape of self-publishing, he’s trying it all and says “What the Hoops Junkie Saw” is available at Crescent Moon Coffee and Indigo Bridge Books in the Haymarket and at the Wesleyan Bookstore. He is in promising discussions with Barnes & Noble, he said.
Though he may have been born an “Okie,” Walker writes like the adopted son of Nebraska he has become, dropping her name in prose and poetry alike, as in this poem “Chorus,” dedicated to his daughter Kelly in Seattle.
A chorus of cardinals
in my May back-yard
sings her name and
a Nebraska breeze
to a Western