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His special connection to North Carolina Central University

LeRoy T. Walker, chancellor emeritus of North Carolina Central University, a historic leader in the U.S. Olympic movement and an acclaimed coach and educator who shaped thousands of lives at NCCU and elsewhere, died Monday, April 23, in Durham at the age of 93.

Dr. Walker was a pioneer. He coached athletes at every Olympic Games from 1956 to 1976. He was the first African-American Olympic head coach when he led the U.S. track and field team at the 1976 Montreal games. He became the first black president of the U.S. Olympic Committee and played a central role in bringing the 1996 games to Atlanta, his hometown. In a career that began in 1945 at North Carolina College (now NCCU), he coached 111 All-Americans, 40 national champions and 12 Olympians. He served as the university’s chancellor from 1983 to 1986.

“LeRoy Walker was truly a remarkable human being, a great teacher, a great leader as chancellor, and a great international figure in competitive sport, especially the Olympics,” said William Friday, president emeritus of the UNC system and a friend of Walker for 40 years. “I don’t know of a man who has had a greater impact in his world than did LeRoy.”

“Chancellor Emeritus Walker was an accomplished figure in athletics and a treasured leader who will be greatly missed,” said Charlie Nelms, chancellor of NCCU. “He leaves a rich legacy that will continue to live on at NCCU.”

LeRoy Tashreau Walker was born June 14, 1918, in a poor area of Atlanta, the youngest of 13 children. He grew up in Harlem after the death of his father when he was 9. He was the only one in his family to go to college. Attending Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., on an athletic scholarship, he was an all-conference basketball player, an All-American quarterback and a magna cum laude graduate.

He went on to earn a master’s degree in physical education from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and biomechanics from New York University.

Dr. Walker was a member of more than a dozen halls of fame, but his admirers said his most impressive legacy may be not in what he accomplished, but in what he inspired and enabled others to achieve.
George Williams, who followed in Dr. Walker’s path to become coach of the U.S. Olympic track and field team, met Dr. Walker in 1976 when he sought him out for advice. Williams had just been hired at as track coach at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, and Dr. Walker, then coach at NCCU, gave him guidance on coaching and his book on biomechanics. Williams’ teams went on to win 32 national titles and produced 36 Olympians.

“Every championship I won was Dr. Walker’s championship,” Williams said in an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer. “With all the lives he touched, Dr. Walker’s life will go on and on. He taught us, and we’ll teach others.”

A product of an earlier era in sport, long before the taint of steroids and college players routinely leaving school early for the pros, Dr. Walker saw athletics not as an exclusive activity, but as part of developing a strong overall character.

He said his own college experience, in which he earned high honors as both an athlete and a student, helped shape his attitude toward athletics and academics. “Don’t tell me because you are an athlete you can’t do something,” he said.

In 1983, UNC President Friday tapped Dr. Walker to become interim chancellor of NCCU. The hallmark of Walker’s chancellorship was his insistence on excellence. “Excellence in performance in all aspects is an expectation,” he said. “The NCCU students will not be excused from this demand. The pursuit of excellence must be a passion.”

When he stepped down in 1986, the UNC Board of Governors retroactively awarded him the title of permanent chancellor.

When he left NCCU, it was to assume the position of treasurer, then chief of mission and finally president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. It was under Dr. Walker’s leadership from 1992 to 1996 that the games came to Atlanta in 1996.

He was proud of the part he played in bringing the Olympics to his hometown, but he also insisted that the Olympic torch be carried through Durham. When it got to NCCU, he carried it himself and lit a gold cauldron in front of 500 cheering people before the gymnasium and recreation complex that bears his name. “I wanted to share this with you, wanted to make sure you got to witness and be part of this,” he told the crowd. “I knew you’d be as overwhelmed by this as I am.”

And in the Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta, Dr. Walker led the march of America’s athletes into the stadium.
During NCCU’s Centennial Celebration in 2010, Dr. Walker was one of the inaugural recipients of the Shepard Medallion, named for NCCU founder James E. Shepard and commissioned by Chancellor Nelms to recognize “women and men who have served the school, their communities or their professions in an exemplary manner.”

Dr. Walker’s survivors include his daughter, Dr. Carolyn Walker Hopp, and son, LeRoy T. Walker Jr. He was preceded in death by his wife, Katherine. The Scarborough & Hargett Funeral Home in Durham is handling funeral arrangements.