Alumni Hall of Fame inductee George Walker (’51) honored as long-time business, civic leader
Raised in Queen Anne with diploma in hand, journalism alumnus George Walker (B.A., 1951) couldn’t find a single publication to hire him at the dawn of the Korean War. He wrote for The Daily while in school, but The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times told him he needed more experience.
Seeking advice, someone told him he should write for the Yellow Pages. Taking a shot in the dark, Walker inquired if they were hiring and landed an entry level position at the phone company – and the rest is history.
Walker’s career at the phone company spanned more than 25 years, starting when it was Pacific Northwest Bell and ending when it was U.S. West as the Vice President and CEO of the Washington Division.
“George is one of the individuals who shaped modern telecommunication infrastructure and the market that we now see,” said Alumni Hall of Fame member Joanne Harrell, who held a peer role to Walker as Vice President of the State of Nebraska for US West in the early 90s. “He was key to the evolution and a lot of the developmental strategy and decisions that were made by Pacific Northwest Bell, US West, and the Pacific Northwestern part of the United States.”
Harrell, who now works at Microsoft as the Senior Director of Citizenship & Public Affairs, said Walker was instrumental to the development of the wireless industry and should be recognized as a part of the local history.
“A lot of people may not understand how we came to being able to pick up a cell phone and how it was set up this way,” Harrell said. “Well, it was set up this way due to the assets and the decisions that were made along the way by leaders of these businesses over a very long period of time, and George was a part of that.”
Beyond Walker’s leadership within the company, which is now CenturyLink, he was also a civic leader – using the resources and position of the company to make sure he and his employees were deeply engaged and meeting the needs of the community.
“His engagement preceded him being a very senior leader in the company,” Harrell said. “I think that his engagement stemmed from something that he believed in. But as he moved up, he was able to make sure the company was a good civic leader as well.”
Chairing many of them, Walker has been an active member of more than 15 local and statewide charitable organizations including the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, the YMCA of greater Seattle, the Washington State Developmental Disabilities Council, and the University of Washington Development Board. And he was the founding board member of the Seattle Alliance for Education.
Alumni Hall of Fame member Neil McReynolds (B.A., 1956), who was Senior Vice President of Puget Sound Power & Light (now Puget Sound Energy) at a similar time, worked closely with Walker in business and civic activities. Both executives at major utilities based in Seattle, their paths crossed many times – and they served on many boards together. McReynolds succeeded Walker as Board Chair of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and as Chair of King County 2000 – a coalition of business, government, labor and education that was designed to prepare the Seattle-King County area for the advent of a new century in 2000.
“I think George learned his lessons well in the School of Communications,” McReynolds said. “I certainly observed his effectiveness as a leader. He was a good communicator, he was an excellent listener, he understood people and he was willing to take some tough stands when needed, all of which are important characteristics for an effective leader.”
McReynolds coins Walker as one of the Seattle area’s prominent business and civic leaders of the 80s and 90s, adding that Walker was “fun to work with and he had a nice sense of humor which came in handy during some challenging times.”
Willing to rally other companies to work together to make a difference, Harrell also said that she thinks of Walker as one of the “early examples of what a business can be in a community, in terms of engagement and commitment to giving back.” While everyone in the Alumni Hall of Fame exemplifies leadership in one capacity or another, Harrell said Walker also represents compassion, commitment over time, caring for those less fortunate, and someone who set an example of inclusiveness.
“I actually think he set an example of leadership not only for business leaders and guys of his era, but I think he set an example for people like me,” she said, “I don’t look like him – I’m a woman, I’m African American, he’s a lot taller than me – but he’s the kind of guy who I looked at as a leader too out of respect.”
Walker is a 2015 inductee to the UW Department of Communication’s Alumni Hall of Fame. To RSVP or learn more about the event, click here.