GJHS to honor Wake Forest coach Walter with award
Wake Forest baseball coach and Johnstown native Tom Walter will be honored with the John P. Murtha Friend in Education Award and an induction into the AAABA Hall of Fame this week. The former Trojan made national headlines this year by donating a kidney to one of his players. (Submitted photo)
On Aug. 5, Walter will be presented with Greater Johnstown High School's John P. Murtha Friend in Education Award at St. Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church, 411 Power Street in Johnstown's Cambria City neighborhood. The next day, he'll be inducted as a member of the AAABA Hall of Fame.
"It's a big, really big weekend," Walter said last week in a phone interview from his home in North Carolina. "It's a big honor for me, obviously, to receive one of these prestigious awards, let alone both back to back."
It is hardly the first attention Walter has received this year. In February, the 1986 Johnstown graduate made national headlines when he donated one of his kidneys to Wake Forest freshman and baseball player Kevin Jordan.
"It was overwhelming," Walter said of the month-long media frenzy that surrounded that operation and subsequent start of the Wake Forest baseball season. "It was certainly a lot bigger than I ever imagined."
Walter said he has fully recovered from the surgery, and Jordan is "doing unbelievable." The player has regained most of the 40 pounds he lost during his illness, and a return to baseball next year is a possibility.
"I saw him for the first time three days ago, and he looks fantastic," Walter said. "He's strong and fit, and he has pretty good muscle definition. He looks like he could play today."
But Walter said baseball had nothing to do with his decision to give his kidney to the freshman recruit.
"For me, this whole thing was about getting Kevin to recover, not about getting him back on the field, not about Wake Forest, the baseball program or recruiting. It's about keeping Kevin healthy."
Walter is quick to de-flect praise for his courage to Jordan, who endured daily nine-hour dialysis treatment during the ordeal but managed to pass each of his classes at Wake Forest. Similarly, he shared credit for his generosity with his hometown.
"With the floods and the mills closing, Johnstown has been through a lot as a community, and they've always stuck together to help one another out. That's just what people in Johnstown do," he said. "Who I am is all Johnstown."
He moved to the city as a 4-year-old in 1972, when his parents, Ralph and Anne Walter, relocated from New York. His father ran a sporting goods store and his grandfather, George Walter, was a sociology professor at Pitt-Johnstown.
His early visits to the college left a lasting impression, Walter said.
"I was in awe of college. It seemed like such a prestigious place at a young age."
Academia still hasn't lost its luster for Walter, a 1991 Georgetown University graduate who has made coursework a priority at each of the college teams he has coached.
He is credited with returning the University of New Orleans baseball program to prominence after the school was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. During his five-year stint at the school, only one of his players failed to graduate.
"At New Orleans, that graduation rate was pretty special — especially considering what we went through with Hurricane Katrina, and the players and coaching staff were all relocated for a year."
His players saw similar academic success during his previous eight-year stay as George Washington University. In two years at Wake Forest, all of his players have graduated.
"At the end of the day, coaches are educators — college coaches, anyway," Walter said. "Our number one job is to (help players) get that degree. Our second job is to prepare them for life. Third is to help them become better baseball players. The fourth goal for all our players is to win. That's the last thing we talk about."
Walter — who has coached current major leaguers such as Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano and Garrett Atkins — teaches the same principles to players each year at an instructional baseball camp he hosts locally with mentor and Johnstown coach Dee Dee Osborne.
Walter said he participates in similar camps across the country, but the Johnstown camp has special meaning.
"Johnstown is the best," he said. "They work so hard. They're blue-collar kids. They pay attention. They work hard and are happy for everything they've got."
Greater Johnstown administrative services coordinator John Zahorchak said Walter's ongoing work with local players and students was a key reason he was selected for the award, which was established in 2001 to recognize individuals for dedication and committment to the education of young people.
"He'd be a fitting recipient even without that (kidney) story," Zahorchak said.
The award will be presented at a barbecue picnic Aug. 5 at St. Mary's Byzantine Church. The event begins at 5 p.m. and is open to the public. Admission is $10 per person. Tickets can be purchased by calling 814-533-5601, ext. 1220.
The AAABA Hall of Fame dinner will be held at the Pasquerilla Convention Center in Johnstown Aug. 6. The hall of fame's 2011 class also includes World Series-winning manager Jack McKeon, his brother and former AAABA Tournament all-star Bill McKeon, Youngstown manager Bob Mingo, and Johnstown native Ron Ling, from the tournament runner-up 1956 Hahn's Packing team.