R.I.P. Ed Walker: “When You’re Born Blind, as I Was, You Learn…”

News this morning  from Washington’s WTOP Radio:  Radio pioneer Ed Walker, whose “Joy Boys” broadcasts with Willard Scott dominated Washington’s airwaves in the 1960s, has died at age 83, three hours after his final broadcast.

Walker, who was born blind, “died quietly in his sleep at 2 a.m.” says Ken Mellgren, Walker’s longtime friend and former boss at WWRC.

“He was in no pain,” Mellgren told WTOP.

Walker was recently diagnosed with cancer. Last week he recorded his final broadcast of “The Big Broadcast” for WAMU from his hospital room.

In a tweet, WAMU said “We are very sad to announce our friend Ed Walker passed away this morning, after listening to his final show with his family.”

Last week the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote a very nice story about Ed wrapping up his broadcast career.
In November 1976, the Washingtonian published one of my favorite magazine pieces: “Ed Walker’s Washington—the City You Can’t See,” by John H. Corcoran Jr. Some excerpts:
Ed learned to do voices on the bus to Baltimore. Each week he’d ride to Baltimore to attend the School for the Blind. He would sit and listen to the voices. The old men became the Old Granddad. A hundred Baltimore accents became Balamer Benny. Soon he could do the Frenchman, the Scot, the old lady, and others.

He got so good at voices he decided to become a radio announcer. His counselors told him to do something sensible like becoming a piano tuner. But when Ed went to American University he helped start the radio station there. He met a guy named Willard Scott and the comedy chemistry clicked. They filled in each other’s silences. They thought funny alike. And with the voices Ed could do, they could became a comedy ensemble together.
The “Joy Boys” show ran for 20 years on radio. Willard Scott was becoming big on television, culminating in a long run on NBC-TV’s Today Show. Ed also moved into TV.
“I’ve always wanted to do TV, but I figured it wasn’t feasible. I’d done a little TV, but it was always taped, so we could start or stop. The thought of live TV worried me. I’m not a mugger, for instance. Willard is very good visually.

“While I had the earpiece, and was always getting instructions, there was still always the chance things would get goofed up. I feared that I’d be out there on camera, foundering. It scared me. It took me a few months to really get comfortable with it.”
On being blind:

When you’re born blind, as I was, you learn to compensate as you’re growing up. When you lose your sight as an older child or adult, it’s more of a traumatic experience. The adjustment process is harder. The thing that I don’t have any concept of is color. Someone who has seen and loses his sight, he’d still know how to write his name. I had to go out and learn to write my name. The whole thing is a tactile experience. My dreams are tactile. There is a misconception that my hearing is better than yours. It isn’t. I just use it more.

The toughest thing for a blind person to navigate in is snow. Snow has a deadening effect on sound. There’s no sound reverberation. Wind is bad, too. So if it’s windy and snowing, it’s really bad. Crowds are also a problem. If you are alone in a crowd, it’s hard to get a sense of perspective. One of the most embarrassing things that happens is to be talking to someone and then they leave and you don’t know it.

I carry a fold-up cane with me if I should need it. I’ve never had a seeing eye dog. In my line of work, it wouldn’t be fair to the dog. Unless I found one that wanted to get into television. I stepped on one of our pet dogs once and I thought I had broken his leg. He learned, though. Whenever it was time for a walk he’d come up under my hand so I could put on a leash.
On going to college:

I went to American University. I met a couple of fellas there and we got a campus radio station going. In the spring of my freshman year, one of the people who helped start the station brought in this high school kid to look over things. His name was Willard Scott. Willard was thinking of going to AU. I met him for the first time in the radio station and we did a bit on the air, cold. I don’t remember what it was but it worked. We just hit it off. He came to American University and we started working together, fraternity parties and dances, that sort of thing. If anyone swatted a fly, we did twenty minutes…
On getting a haircut:

The barber shop I remember as a kid wasn’t air-conditioned. It had a big fan whirring and it would put you right to sleep. My memories of barber shops include a couple of them where they had canary birds and they’d sing. And there’s always be a guy talking in hushed tones on the pay phone. You knew he was taking numbers.

I went to one barbershop until they changed owners and I didn’t like the new guys. I was about seventeen, in high school, and traveling around by myself with a cane for the first time. I knew there was another barbershop down the block and I thought I’d go there. So I’d walk by the first shop real fast and get about halfway down the street and the guy’d come running out of the first shop and say, “Hey, man, you went right past us.” It happened two or three times and I finally had to get my Dad to drive me so I could get by the first guy’s shop.
On getting home:

When we moved to Warren Street, over near Wisconsin Avenue, my Dad couldn’t find any difference between our house and the houses surrounding it. So he put a big rock in the corner of the wall. He said I might need it sometime. I was in college then, and sure enough one night a cab driver dropped me off on the wrong block and took off. I went up to where I thought our house was and realized it wasn’t our house. I just stood there for a moment and listened until I could hear the sounds of the traffic on Wisconsin Avenue. I thought: It’s a little louder where I’m standing than it normally is, so I figured I must be a block closer to Wisconsin Avenue. So I walked up to my street and found our house by looking for that rock.
On working in television:

All those years on radio there was never any problem. We never talked about it. Not that I’m ashamed of it, or sensitive about it. I just decided that if I became popular or successful, I wanted to do it on the strength of what I did, not because I was an oddity, not because I was blind.

At first, a big change was wearing glasses. I’d never worn glasses before. They wanted me to wear glasses because I blink involuntarily and I can’t control it. They agreed that we’d handle the show matter-of-factly, and if it showed me reading braille, it showed me reading braille. We got a few calls, curiosity mostly.

I was very apprehensive about it at first. I don’t like to do things that I don’t think I’m going to succeed in. But I’ve always wanted to do TV. I wear an earpiece and I’m getting cues from the director all the time. The people with the show will tell me constructive things, like, When we cue you to move to one camera, don’t move your head suddenly, do it gradually. Don’t go on the set with your fly unzipped—things like that.

On airports:

I can hear the jets warming up. I used to come out here with my father when I was young. This was my father’s idea of fun. We used to come out and watch the airplanes. Wow, if that’s a Whisperjet, I’d hate to hear a loud one. The sounds have changed at airports. I used to hear the sound of the DC-3s. I remember riding in a couple of those. I’d always end up sitting by the window and listening for the sound of the engine to miss. You know the thing is right outside the window, and every time I’d hear a squeak, I’d go, “Oh, what’s that?” Another thing that used to bother me about airports was those insurance vending machines. You always wonder.
On going to parties:

I don’t like parties. It’s more stimulating to be with a group of friends I can converse with than to be in a large crowd, like a cocktail party. Back when we were the Joy Boys, I’d be at a party with Willard and everyone knew Willard. They’d come up to him and say, “Hi, how are ya?” I wondered why Willard wouldn’t introduce me to those people. I thought, that’s rude, man, here I work with a guy and he doesn’t introduce me to his friends. So one night it happened and I asked Willard, “Who was that?” He answered, “How would I know?” These people never suspected that Willard didn’t remember them. So I learned that this was his signal. When he didn’t introduce me, that meant it was someone he didn’t remember.

We worked well together at parties. People would yell a line across a room and we’d both respond automatically the way we were supposed to respond. One night Willard threw a shoe at me at a party and I caught it.
From Jack: People who have to deal with the world differently can be a good story.

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