Published on May 19th, 2011 | by Alan Abrahamson8
America’s oldest living Olympian: Walter Walsh, 104
They announced the details of the 2012 Summer Games torch relay earlier this week.
If they’re smart at the London organizing committee, and they are, and if fortune smiles on him for another year as it has for these past 104, they ought to make sure that Mr. Walter Walsh gets one of the 8,000 or so slots in that relay run.
Mr. Walsh was there, in person, the last time they held the Games in London. That would have been in 1948. He was on the U.S. Olympic team, a member of the American shooting squad. He finished 12th — just one of many achievements in a life full of accomplishments and memories.
His hearing isn’t perhaps what it was. But Mr. Walsh is still pretty damn vital. When I first called his house, in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, to talk to him about the 1948 Olympics and everything he had done and seen in his life, he thought I was a salesman cold-calling him for something he sure as hell didn’t want or need at 104. “Cut the BS!” he said before hanging up.
A few minutes later, after one of his sons, also named Walter Walsh — who happened to be visiting from out of town — had explained what I was after, and we arranged another call, the senior Mr. Walsh couldn’t have been more gracious.
“It’s a pleasure to be here to do any damn thing,” he said about being 104. “Just as long as I can do it. I don’t care much about what it is. I just want to do it.”
In some regards, Mr. Walsh’s life story reads like something from a super-hero tale.
He was born May 4, 1907 in New Jersey — he just turned 104 a couple weeks ago and is America’s oldest living Olympian. The International Olympic Committee this week launched an inquiry to find out if there’s an older Olympian anywhere else in the world.
Mr. Walsh graduated from Rutgers law school.
In 1934, he joined the FBI. Think about that. Just 27, in the midst of the Depression, he was a G-Man — when the bureau was very much still making its reputation.
He helped make it.
That very same year, 1934, after a shootout that left two FBI agents dead, it was Walsh who — acting on a tip — discovered the body of Chicago gangster Baby Face Nelson.
The next year, Mr. Walsh arrested one of the most notorious criminals in the entire United States, Arthur “Doc” Barker. Barker, along with his brother and his mother, “Ma” Barker, were wanted for their role in a high-profile kidnapping. Doc Barker had been trailed, as the story goes, to a Chicago apartment building. Walsh caught him there, unarmed.
At a ceremony commemorating the FBI’s 100th anniversary, this is the way Mr. Walsh told the story:
“I asked him, ‘Where’s your heater Doc?’
“He said, ‘It’s up in the apartment.’
“I said, ‘You’re lucky, Doc. Ain’t that a hell of a place for it?’ He was ready to be shot if he tried to run. … Lucky for him he didn’t, because he was close enough he’d be hard to miss.”
In September, 1937, Walsh was part of a shoot-out between FBI agents and the infamous Brady Gang in Bangor, Maine. The gang had been on a cross-country robbery spree; they had gone up to Maine looking to stock up on weapons and ammo.
In the cross-fire, Mr. Walsh took a bullet in the shoulder. Even so, he was soon back on the job. Alfred Brady, at the time Public Enemy No. 1, was killed.
In World War II, Mr. Walsh joined the Marine Corps. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Mr. Walsh’s expertise with a gun made him something of a celebrity in shooting circles. He was featured in photo spreads in gun publications, even in Life magazine, as his friends at the FBI have recounted.
For several years, he commanded the Marines’ marksmanship unit. He was in the corps when he took part in the 1948 Games.
The war had only been over, of course, for three years. He said with approval, “London didn’t show any major damage from the war,” adding, “There was plenty of time for recovery. The British are industrious, hard-working people.”
“The ’48 Olympics — he remembers them quite well,” his son said, launching into a story that’s now family legend about how a British Royal Marine enlisted man had been tasked with driving the American Marine officer around London but was very concerned with how much gasoline was being consumed.
“The young man made some kind of mistake and had to go back 10 or 20 or 30 miles and pick something up — some team property he had forgotten somewhere. He mentioned to dad, ‘When I get back, the old man,” meaning the responsible British officer, “is going to skin me alive — I’ve burned up all this gasoline.’
“My dad said, ‘Don’t worry about it, son. We’ll buy you the gasoline you need,’ and he did. This guy was so impressed with the American shooters. Of course my dad was an active-duty American Marine officer at the time. Dad came home with several Royal Marine berets and distributed them to his sons. And I still have one.”
The 1948 Olympics, the son said, “are not that distant to dad.”
Once more for emphasis — World War II had ended just three years prior. “The competition was, as I remember, the usual exchanges of friendship between members of the various teams,” Mr. Walsh said. “On some of the teams, I’m thinking of the Germans particularly, they spoke in a broken fashion, better English than we did.
“… You had these people competing — they were all trying to do the same thing. They were trying to speak to each other with various degrees of difficulty.
“… It brings about a mixture between these people. You get by with stuttering and making hand motions. It was a great experience for me. And I enjoyed it.”
Mr. Walsh was married for 43 years; his wife passed away in 1980. They had five children together — three daughters and two sons. The family counts 17 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.
When the FBI held that 100-year celebration three years back, it was duly noted that Mr. Walsh was a year older than the agency itself.
“My dad is a great guy. Just a great guy,” said his son, who is 66, himself a former Marine Corps officer and a businessman, living now in Birmingham, Ala.
“Most of the things I know that are worthwhile I know i know from him … he was the greatest dad a kid might have. I can tell you my dad is a great dad, and a great guy, and a strong personality, a good leader and a principled, honest, stand-up person. I’ve seen that in my life.
“… I understand in what regard other people hold my father and I’m a little bit amazed. I still — I don’t ever want to disappoint him.”