Remembering June Walker...
NFCA Hall of Famer Still Loved and Missed by Former Players and Colleagues
By Lacy Lee Baker
On May 2, 2008, the 1983 College of New Jersey team that won the NCAA Division III National Championship will become a Team of Distinction in the TCNJ hall of fame. Although June Walker, famed coach of the team who passed away almost seven years ago, will not be present, there’s no doubt she will be there in spirit and on the minds of everyone in attendance.
“June was a great teacher and had the game down to a science,” said Cindy Cohen, former head softball coach at Princeton who served as an assistant coach under Walker for three years (1980-82) at the then-called Trenton State College. “In her deep Southern drawl, she’d say to the catcher, ‘If you can’t get the ball down to second base within two seconds, then there’s no point to throwing it, is there?’
“She was very technical, yet she had a wonderful way with the kids,” said Cohen, who now serves as the associate director of athletics at William Paterson. “She was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, but she never made her kids or assistant coaches feel stupid.”
But Walker wasn’t one to let stupid things go unnoticed. Both Cohen and Robin Payne, who played for Walker on the 1983 championship team, said that one of Walker’s favorite expressions was “You, Dummy, You.” Payne said that if you didn’t get called a “Dummy,” then she probably didn’t like you.
“If you did something stupid, ranging from a baserunning error to leaving a piece of your equipment in the dugout, you had to carry around a rubber chicken until the next person did something stupid,” Payne said.
“At the end of the year, we would have a big ceremony and bury the chicken by the outfield fence. When TCNJ built a new field several years ago, Debbie Simpson, who is now the recreation director at TCNJ, former all-American first baseperson Jill Herman and I tried to find the buried chickens to move them to the new field. We couldn’t find a single one. I felt her presence watching from above and calling us all dummies.”
Payne said one of Walker’s strengths was that she “let us be us.” Cohen said that Walker was always very prepared and didn’t get hung up on the stuff that really didn’t matter.
Gina LaMandre, former coach at Maryland and a pitcher on the 1983 Trenton State team, was quoted in a Fastpitch Delivery article from the November 2001 issue after Walker’s passing. “One year in the national tournament, I was so nervous that I went on the mound and just froze,” said LaMandre. “The catcher calls timeout and June comes out to the mound. I said I couldn’t remember what foot to lead with and June says with her slow Southern accent, ‘Let’s see, you’re right-handed and this is the way it should go.’” Apparently Walker was very matter of fact and didn’t make fun of her for forgetting how to pitch, especially at the national championship.
Payne reminisced that the 1983 season started out with the team driving all night on a 17-hour trip to South Carolina for spring break in two vans. Payne was one of the lucky ones to drive the graveyard shift. Upon arrival at 7 a.m., Walker had them get out of the vans and go right onto the field for practice, which Payne says, “was preparing us mentally for day one of the championship.
“Before we won the 1983 championship, Coach Walker gave me and the rest of the seniors our senior gift,” said Payne. “She took us to dinner and presented us with a pewter and silver glove necklace, which I still cherish to this day. She said, 'I'm giving you this gift now because you will win us a national championship.'"
“June was never afraid to learn something new or ask a question,” Cohen said. “She had some great rivalries with Clyde Washburne at Eastern Connecticut State, George Wares from Central and Marge Willadsen from Buena Vista. She was a big thinker and was very innovative.
“She also made a name for herself across all divisions. She was a true pioneer of the sport,” Cohen said about Walker, who was inducted into the NFCA Hall of Fame in 1992.
Now that there’s an effort to get TCNJ’s field named in Walker’s honor (see accompanying story), many of the alumni have gotten together to talk about old times and plan the fundraising effort that has already surpassed the one-third mark of the $100,000 needed for the field’s naming rights. “I’ve seldom, if ever, seen a coach so beloved with such a loyal group of alums,” said Cohen.
“When we seriously started the fundraising effort, 35 of us got together at the new field in the fall with many alumni from my era,” said Payne, who is credited with keeping the Walker field-naming idea alive. “I felt that Dr. Walker was right there with us because I saw her drive in so many of her former athletes. She taught them to be these type of people – people who fight passionately and intelligently for what they believe in. I look forward to when we can honor her memory with the naming of Dr. June Walker Field.”