They called it the shed—a shotgun building that housed an office, two bathrooms, a game room and a gym where hundreds of children practiced and played without air conditioning.
But, for those children, the shed was their haven: the place where they went to practice sports, seek counseling and learn discipline. For their parents, it was a sanctuary that helped keep their children off the streets and out of trouble. It kept their children occupied, and safe.
In time, the city would expand the shed at Ben Hill Park Recreation Center on Fairburn Road to fill the vision and support the mission of the man who runs it.
But the legacy William Walker, Jr., leaves behind stretches beyond the concrete walls of the upgraded facility he and the community fought 15 years to obtain.
Instead his mark will be measured in the generation of lives that he touched and the number of programs he launched to meet the needs of an expanded community.
And for that and more, at 1 p.m. today in the City Council Chambers at City Hall, 55, Trinity Ave., Atlanta's Mayor Kasim Reed will present Walker with the city’s highest honor: The Phoenix Award.
Southwest Atlanta Councilman C. T. Martin and the city council will present him with the proclamation.
Rarely has a man done so much, for so long, for so many and asked for so little in return, said Ralphael Hawkins, the center’s martial arts instructor.
“I think the award is long overdue,” Hawkins said.
The ex-marine was 12 years old when he started hanging out at the recreation center.
“That was our thing. We got out of school, did our homework and went to the Rec.,” Hawkins, 52, said. “He kept the children from being on the street. He kept them in line, made sure they had a place to go so they wouldn’t vandalize the neighborhood and get in trouble.
“Most people give five or 10 years. He’s been there for over 40 years.”
For four faithful decades, Walker served as counselor, preacher and teacher to the community’s young and old. For hundreds, he served as father, grandfather and coach.
And, for at least one single mother, he served as a friend in need.
A Widow’s Friend
A widow with three young children to raise Rahimah Ali needed help in teaching her young sons how to become men.
Then Ali discovered the small recreation center with a group of people who would provide the network she needed and a community of friends she would call family.
“They welcomed me and my children,” Ali said. “It was like they had known us forever.”
After several years of toting her children back and forth to the center to play basketball, football and baseball, Ali had a long list of mentors for her sons.
Walker headed that list.
And when one of her son stood accused of robbery, he was the first person Ali called.
“When I looked up and saw Mr. Walker talking for my son and my son’s character, that meant a lot to me,” Ali said. “When the judge asked who was there for Razzak, 90 percent of the people stood and 90 percent of them were from Ben Hill.
"Mr. Walker led the way.”
Ali’s son was found not guilty.
“There is nothing I can think of asking Mr. Walker that he wouldn’t do,” said Ali who now takes her grandchildren to the center. “If he asks me to walk on water, I will darn sure try to tread it.”
Ali became a teen mom for the center, helping to keep the roster, organizing the snacks, getting the uniforms in order and making sure everybody gets to where they need to be.
“We are a family at Ben Hill,” Ali said. “Ben Hill is a place for kids to go, grow and be safe.”
And Walker built it that way.
A Safe Haven
When Vivian Wynn saw the kids at the elementary school sitting on the steps doing their home work while they waited for their parents, Wynn decided she had to do something. She approached Walker with the idea of an After School program.
“He’s always for anything that will serve children,” said Wynn, Walker’s former assistant. Walker welcomed the idea and suggested she speak to the school’s principal.
It became the first program of its kind at a recreation center, Wynn said.
“We were a safety haven for parents who worked long hours,” Wynn said. “If parents had to be late, they were just late.”
At that time the center opened at 9 a.m. and closed at 11 p.m. The number of children in the After School program varied from about 25 to 60 children. And sometimes children would still be there at 10:30 p.m., Wynn said.
“If mom’s car broke down, he would ask where you stay and take you home in his car,” Wynn said.
Ready to Serve
Standing about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, the smiling man with the calm disposition served as a rock for troubled teens, single parents and a host of others seeking advice and guidance.
In 1971, when Walker became the center’s director there weren’t enough programs to meet the needs for the very young and the elderly.
Walker, who attended community meetings and gatherings, quickly tapped into the residents’ needs and began implementing programs to bridge the gaps.
He started the “Six and Under” and “Eight and Under” programs so that children as young as 4 years old could play basketball, football and baseball. Those programs have since been adopted city wide.
He launched the city’s first cheer-off for cheerleaders; provided resources for adults who need help in obtaining food stamps, creating resumes and assistance learning to use computers.
He started a Women’s Basketball League, expanded programs that were already in place including the football team that grew from two teams to between 15 and 18.
He implemented athletic programs to meet the needs of adults, 35 years old and older, as well as adults 50 years old and older. He opened up programs that included dance classes for children and senior citizens, and for the elderly he also provided a place to play Bridge.
For years, he fought alongside the community when they pushed to get the city to build a bigger recreation center. In 1997, the city completed the two-story building with exercise equipment, computer rooms and enough spaces for classes and meetings.
Each year, he welcomed the 300 to 350 students who go through the center’s summer program, and listened as others made suggestions that would help meet the needs of the community.
“He was like a father to me. You go to Mr. Walker with anything you want to do and he’s going to work with you on how to do it. He’s always a person you can go to for advice. He’s going to find time for you no matter what it is.”
In a yellow station wagon, Walker would pick up children from their homes and schools to bring them to the center until the vehicle broke down. Then the city began providing the transportation.
With numerous teams for varying age groups and athletic programs for both genders, the center grew to have the largest participation of all the city’s centers, Walker said.
“A lot of people who used to play for me, came back and brought their kids,” Walker, 73, said. “The program was built around volunteers.”
With programs perhaps too numerous to count, Walker’s impact can be traced to a string of star athletes such as the NBA’s Dwight Howard, head coaches who help shape the young and professionals who took the time to give back.
“We teach people life skills that can be helpful to others,” said Walker, who is a husband and father. “When they come back and contribute, when they volunteer their time, that’s more important to me than money.
"Seeing them grow up and do well, that’s the most meaningful to me.”
Twelve-year-old Kathy Washington couldn’t find any where that provided sports activities for girls, until she came across Ben Hill recreation center. She went every day, after doing her chores, to play basketball or softball.
“He helped define my character, gave me leadership skills,” said Washington whose two children also attended the sports programs at Ben Hill. “Mr. Walker still has my utmost respect. He helped me to grow as well as my kids to grow to be the best citizens we can be.”
Washington said over the years she has seen the impact walker and the center have had on the young.
“If something happen and we didn’t have the center, it would be a disaster for the neighborhood,” Washington, 50, said.
“They wouldn’t have a place to go. They wouldn’t have the nurturing and leadership that me and my children had. It would be a travesty if it was no longer there.”