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Ted Walker Youth Day honors historic patron of parks, children

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The way we were

Ted Walker Youth Day honors historic patron of parks, children

For 30 years, Pima County has observed Ted Walker Youth Day, an annual educational event organized by the Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department at Old Tucson. The day honors the work of a prominent businessman and philanthropist who served for two decades on the Pima County Parks and Recreation Commission during a formative and critical time. His tireless efforts have much to do with what our park system is today.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Ted Walker arrived in Tucson with his wife, Daisy, in 1941 and started in business with a service station on Oracle Road, an operation which eventually included other sites around Tucson. In 1943 he expanded his interests to trailer home sales, and by the early 1950s his dealership on South 6th Avenue was advertised as the "oldest and largest" such business in Arizona. By this time, Walker was already regarded as a local business leader, having helped organize the Arizona Mobile Home Dealers Association and the South Tucson Chamber of Commerce.

However, it is his charitable work in the community for which he is best remembered. Walker took a special interest in children's causes. He was active with the Shriners, a Masonic organization which had made providing for the care of ill and infirm children a long-standing priority. Given this background, Walker saw an unmet need in Tucson. This was a time when polio, or "infantile paralysis," had become a public health crisis, if not a pandemic. The year 1946 was considered the second-worst year for the disease, with some 25,698 new cases nationwide. Though there were only a handful of reported cases in Pima County, Walker found the response less than adequate, as the state's only treatment facility was in Phoenix.

In 1947, Walker and a group of volunteers repurposed his daughter's playhouse to build a small clinic in the family backyard near Country Club and Fort Lowell. Successfully lobbying the state for approval and staffing, the facility soon opened as the Square and Compass Children's Clinic, the name being a nod to the work of Walker's fellow Masons in getting it built and funding its operation. From the beginning, Walker knew that the clinic would soon outgrow its space, so plans were already afoot for a permanent home. Acquiring a parcel near Broadway and Country Club, Walker solicited the help of the local AFL-CIO, who donated an estimated $85,000 worth of labor to construct the new building. Opening in 1950, the clinic remained in operation there until 1991, when it was moved to a few facility on the campus of Tucson Medical Center

Though the philanthropy of local Masons was key to keeping the clinic open, a small amount of money was raised from a novel source. In the early 1950s, Walker donated a fountain and a bronze statue called "Mamie" (after the then-first lady) to the Ccounty for display in the courthouse patio. Coins thrown into the fountain were recovered by county employees and donated to the clinic. By the early 1980s, too many of the coins were being stolen and Walker ended the program. In 1992, the fountain, long since dry, was removed as part of a surprisingly controversial remodeling of the patio and Walker found Mamie a new home at the Square and Compass facility at TMC.

Another one of Walker's many causes was parks and preservation of open space. This was another aspect of his passion for the welfare of children. An avid hunter, Walker believed that outdoor recreation was critical to the well-being of young people. Recognizing his interest, the Board of Supervisors appointed him to the County Parks and Recreation Commission in 1953. 

The county's park system, to the extent that it could be called a system at that point, consisted largely of Tucson Mountain Park and Colossal Cave Park. The status of both parks at the time was in jeopardy. Tucson Mountain Park was on leased federal land coveted by miners, and it was not even clear if the county had the authority under state law to purchase or maintain park land. During his tenure, the commission worked with federal and state authorities to resolve these issues, setting the precedents which continue to guide Pima County's conservation policies today.

Walker's other priority on the commission was to provide amenities like swimming pools and "play areas" in rapidly developing areas in the unincorporated county. He proposed partnering with schools and the city of Tucson, as well as making appeals to the community at large, to help pay for these new parks, resulting in an unprecedented expansion of the system.

Walker retired in 1973, stepping down from the commission and selling his business, though he remained involved in the community. In 1987, he founded the Pima County Parklands Foundation, a non-profit which raises money for maintenance and programs in the county's parks.

By the time of Walker's death in 1993, he had already been honored for his work in expanding and modernizing the park system. Ina Road Park in Marana, which was created during his tenure, was renamed Ted Walker Park in 1979. Ted Walker Youth Day was first declared by Pima County in 1990, and is still going strong, with some 2,000 students expected to participate in 2020. It seems a fitting tribute to Walker's lifelong work.

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