"Son, don't you ever forget the bridge that carried you across." Moses L. Walker recalls his mother often telling him that.
So Walker, a retired Borgess Medical Center executive who served multiple terms on the Kalamazoo City Commission and on many boards, says he always found ways to give back.
Now the Family Health Center in Kalamazoo has named the newest building at its headquarters after Walker. (Click icon to hear interview.)
Walker helped found the center in 1970 to provide care for people of limited means, at a time when he had his hands full as executive director of the historic Douglass Community Association recreation center; in fact, he was only two years into his tenure there when the health center opened in a trailer. Today, the operation has grown into five locations, comprised of a main facility and four satellites. Walker, 77, is current chair of its board, and is a past interim director.
On Thursday's WMUK's WestSouthwest news and public affairs show, the Kalamazoo native talks about the Moses L. Walker Building honor, his contributions to the community, his thoughts about leadership and what it was like being a black youth during the days of segregation.
"For leadership, you got to be willing to take risks," says Walker, noting that it was especially true during the '60s when he was coming of age and the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts were eventually passed. "One of the things I've always said: 'If you run no risks, you create no change.' "
"If I'm in a position--as a person of color, as a male--if I'm in a position to do something (and) if I'm not willing to speak up and speak out, then who's going to do it? And, if I'm not willing to help you, then who's going to do it? That's the way I live my life."
Although segregation was the law of the land in America when he was a boy, Walker says his Mississippi-born parents didn't talk much about racism, even though they might have been experiencing it themselves.
Walker fondly recalls attending nursery school at the agency he would later head--the Douglass Community Association--with people like the late Charles Warfield, who, like Walker, rose to become huge humanitarian figures in Kalamazoo's African-American community.
He has memories of attending neighborhood schools in Kalamazoo that were racially mixed (he says court-ordered desegregation didn't come until the 1970s). A good athlete who was outgoing and on a college-bound track, Walker says he got along well with his white classmates and with his teachers.
One white educator in particular had a lasting impact on him. He says the late Mildred McConkey, his high-school guidance counselor, was one of his biggest champions. She challenged him to do better academically.
Racism, much later
He says it wasn't until he left his studies at Western Michigan University to enroll in the U.S. Army, that he experienced overt racism for the first time. Walker had exceeded the test score needed for a promotion, he says, but was denied one while others with lower ratings were elevated.
Instead of becoming bitter, Walker says he returned to Kalamazoo bent on bringing excellence to all that he does, so that it'd be obvious that discrimination was at play if he failed to succeed. He says his motivation to do well was also fueled by McConkey's belief in him and his parents' emphasis on their eight children being educated.
Walker re-enrolled in Western, finishing out with much higher grades than previously and earning a bachelor's degree. He'd go on to obtain two master's degrees, one in business administration from WMU and the other in social work from Wayne State University, in hopes of pursuing a public service leadership role.
Years later, Walker says, he had a chance to talk to McConkey, his high-school counselor who has since passed away, and she was proud of his achievements.
For his life of service, the Family Health Center on Oct. 27 named the newer of its two buildings at the main Paterson Street location after Walker during a surprise ceremony. His voice gets emotional as he reminisces about that day.
He says he wishes his childhood friend and fellow community leader, Charles Warfield, was still alive to share the "overwhelming experience" with him. Warfield died last year. Walker says he spoke at his services.
"The work that he did spoke for him. I want them to say the same thing about me," Walker says. "I want the work to speak for me."
Update: Moses Walker was honored at the 6th Annual Kalamazoo Legacy Luncheon held Feb. 27, 2018, three months after Kalamazoo's Family Health Center named a building after him. (To hear our interview with the luncheon's keynote speaker, click on Shannon LaNier's name. He's a great grandson of President Thomas Jefferson.)