Rosa Whitaker Pays Tribute to Walker Williams — a Relentless Advocate for Africa

One who not only could offer good counsel, but dispatched it from a good heart.  A soldier who not only fought the good fight and stayed the course, but who helped others navigate the battlefield as well.” 

It is an honor to pay tribute to the life of Walker Williams.

When it comes to finding positive things to say about the dearly departed, I am blessed to have a treasury at my disposal because Walker was an accomplished man.

There are many places where you can learn about his tireless, determined work for Africa and the Caribbean. Others have spoken about it today.  The NGO community, the diplomatic community, the energy and education communities, the economic development communities are well aware of Walker’s contributions in their arenas – how he built a devotion to a continent into one organization after another committed to addressing both the needs and potential of Africa holistically. We have Leadership Africa USA and Education Africa USA and Walker’s fingerprints on countless initiatives and programs at the U.S. Department of State, USAID, and the U.S. Department of Energy.  So, Walker’s reputation and legacy as a man of action and a relentless advocate for Africa are embedded in the historical record.

What I want to focus on today is the abiding, unalterable, never-ending essential goodness of Walker Williams, the man.

I was in college when I met him – just a 19 year old kid with a passion for a continent I had not yet even visited, but one I was drawn to and one I felt called to serve.  Walker was already “the man to see” for any one serious about Africa.

I was surprised that, at the end of our first-ever meeting and discussion, Walker gave me his phone number and told me to keep in touch; to call him any time I needed more guidance or wanted to brainstorm an idea.  Who was I, after all, but just another dreamy college kid?

But, I was in for another surprise when, some time later, I took him up on his offer and put in a call.  And, you know something?  He called me back, which was a big deal for a 19 year old.

Promptly.  Then he gave me as much time as I needed and we talked through my next steps, which involved getting to Africa, internships and the foreign service.

And, here’s the thing: Walker answered every one of my calls after that. Every call in the 1980s.  Every call in the 1990s.  Every call in the 2000s.  Every call I’ve placed to him over the years, throughout the decades, was either answered on the spot or quickly returned.  Because, if you were serious about your work in Africa and were there for the right reasons, Walker Williams had time for you every time.

When I had nothing to trade, nothing to offer him, he responded just as quickly and generously as, years later, when I was leading U.S. trade policy in Africa; and, after that, when my own Africa investment firm had flourished.   There was no difference in Walker’s reception or his responsiveness when I had nothing to trade and when I had much.  That’s because status did not matter to Walker; substance did.   As you can see from the testimonies today, Walker’s relationships were not transactional.

I must confess that I called on him a lot over the years. Not because he was the only source of information or the only mentor available, no.  I called on him because I could trust his intentions as well as his wisdom.  When my company prospered, I sensed more than a little resentment from certain corners and pockets of Washington.  Walker was delighted and celebrated my success.  Further, I always could rely on Walker to hold anything we discussed in strictest confidence.  In all these years, nothing I ever said to him came back to me in another source.  And, never once would he discourage me, even if he disagreed with me.  He found a way to make an impression without being offensive or critical.  In fact, never once did I ever hear him disparage a single soul – not anyone, even if, by all accounts and most standards, they deserved it.

As fundamental a virtue as that may seem to be, we all know it is rare, especially in this field where there are so many players on the field, so many motives and so much at stake. If your intentions were right, Walker would work with you – politics, race, age or social standing aside. Divisions, rivalries and jockeying for special advantages in the Africa space deeply troubled him.  He believed in a coordinated, unified approach.  He was one who united—not divided.

He also recognized that Africa was not a hobby, nor a cash cow, nor a job, but rather a commitment.  Walker Williams’ work was not a means to an end – to make himself famous or rich or powerful.  His work was an end unto itself.  He had a visceral and deep reaction to people who were hurting and, for him, it wasn’t enough to share their pain; he had to do something about it or try with all his heart.

Those of us who love and trust the Lord don’t believe that death is the final call.  There is a splendid, exhilarating “more” to come.  So, as much as we will miss Walker in this realm, where his spirit was so enriching, we can only celebrate his having passed this way and be grateful for what he left behind.

Yes, there were documentable, measurable accomplishments.  Yes, there are organizations that will continue his legacy.  Yes, his sage advice and happy encounters remain with us.

But, Walker’s best parting gift to us was his good character.

A man who could not only strategize, but empathize.  One who not only could offer good counsel, but dispatched it from a good heart.  A soldier who not only fought the good fight and stayed the course, but who helped others navigate the battlefield as well.  A friend to an uncertain college girl and a friend to global power brokers, alike.

He taught us, he gave us, he proved to us, the extraordinary virtue of simply being good.