In September 2000, Northwestern football was playing at Wisconsin. I don’t remember why now, but for some reason, we weren’t watching the game. Instead we were buying hair dye at Osco Drug. We were walking out of Osco when we heard the car horns, and someone passed us running down the street yelling that we’d beaten Wisconsin in double overtime. The campus was total chaos. The band seniors and the leadership and some other people got together trying to think of what we could do for the football team.
We called Media Services to find out when the team was scheduled to arrive back in Evanston, and then started calling everyone in the band to see who could go to the stadium to greet them. By the time it was time to go we had a good number of band kids, and we piled into all the cars we could find and headed to Dyche. On the way, we passed tons of students walking the same way – apparently our plan had gotten out to the frats and sororities and some other students, and they were coming too.
We couldn’t get in touch with anyone on the faculty who had keys to our storage area in the stadium, and the fences were all padlocked, so we climbed the fences and broke in and passed out the drums and sousaphones and flags and other big equipment to people.
The team had no idea, and when the buses pulled up you could see them at the windows wondering what the hell was going on. When they started to get off the buses, we were playing the fight song for them, and the guys were just blown away. The ones I knew from classes were hugging me and the kids who’d come along were singing and cheering and when Randy Walker got off the bus, he had tears in his eyes, and asked if he could use our ladder for a minute.
So Randy climbed up on the ladder and gave a speech, and I don’t remember a word of it but his voice broke several times – he was incredibly touched. And then everyone there put our arms around each other and sang the alma mater (something the band does at the end of every game).
For the rest of the season, whenever the team had a road game, we were there when they got back – no matter what time, day or night, no matter what the weather was like. I don’t know if they are still doing it, but I hope so. I have always been very proud and happy to have been a part of making that day happen.
This is my single favorite memory of all my four years in Evanston. It beats bowl games and road trips and kisses and classes and parties and home games. It beats working on films and taking the El to the city at 2 in the morning and guarding the rock. It beats graduation.
That was the first time I had the privilege of speaking to Randy Walker in person, and I liked him just as much in person as I had from afar. He was warm and open and sincere and driven. It was easy to see why students and athletes believed in him. Back then, we didn’t know all that he would do for the football program, but we were behind him all the way.
Randy Walker died of an apparent heart attack last night. He had recently turned 52 years old.
Sadly, I know or know of many people who have lost fathers quite suddenly in the last two weeks. A couple of them were close enough to my life that I considered writing about them here, but ultimately chose not to. Randy was also a father, to a son and daughter about my age.
Maybe it’s silly for me to choose to write about this father. Maybe it’s wrong to feel upset about his death. After all, I never really knew the man. I never ate dinner at his house. I never spoke with him for more than a few minutes here and there. I am sure he did not know my name. But in his way, without even realizing it, Randy Walker changed my life. I am so very sorry he’s gone.