Graton’s Lee Walker Jr. remembered at large memorial service

By Rollie Atkinson, Special to SoCoNews, SoCoNews, March 31, 2022

lee walker jr

Lee Walker Jr. died March 13 at the age of 90. A memorial service was held to pay tribute to Walker on March 26. Photo courtesy Walker family

Many people have shaped the apple growing industry of western Sonoma County over almost 150 years. They have put down deep roots in their orchards and beneath their family trees. They have been the primal forces that have met and endured both nature’s surprises and multiple market upheavals with multi-generational resolve and resourcefulness. All these individuals possessed many strengths and talents but only one was endowed with a major-league worthy fastball and a knee-crippling curveball. And that farmer-pitcher was Graton’s Lee F. Walker Jr.

Walker farmed his 50-acre ranch with his family for 70 years, most of them alongside his wife Shirley. After a brief military career, he was recruited to play professional baseball but passed up an offer to go east and chase a major league baseball dream and stayed at the ranch to raise his young family of three children, Susan, Lee III and John. Walker died March 13 after a brief stay in hospice. He was 90. Walker was predeceased by his wife Shirley in 2010 after 57 years of marriage.

A “whole-community” gathering was held Saturday, March 26 at Sebastopol’s Holy Ghost Hall where 300 guests shared tributes and a large tri-tip spread with local wines and apple juice. All the other local apple families were there along with members of the Graton Fire department, former El Molino High School baseball coaches and players and others. Apple neighbors included the Duttons, Kozlowskis, Hurst, Kaido (Oehlmann), Barlow, Mininni, Bertoli, Davis, Marshall, Gregori and others.

Walker’s son, Lee III, led the crowd in a loving version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” his father’s favorite song. “Baseball was my dad’s love. It’s what he did his whole life. Boy, he was a good one,” he said.

Walker pitched for the Santa Rosa Rosebuds and Healdsburg Prune Packers before signing a semi-pro contract with the Boston Red Sox. He led his Santa Rosa Junior College team to the state finals one year and he was a paid batting practice pitcher for the San Francisco Giants during the era of Willie McCovey and Willie Mays.

At his memorial, it was apples more than baseball that brought his west county neighbors and family members together on a sun-bright afternoon where blossoming apple trees could be seen outside the windows of the hall. “The ranch was the hub,” his daughter-in-law Cindy told the crowd. “He knew every tree and how old they were. He loved waiting on visitors to give them exactly what apples they came for.”

Walker was the fifth of now seven generations of owners of the farm originally started by his maternal grandfather Arthur Upp in 1910. After many years of selling their crops to local packing houses, Lee and his wife Shirley in 1960 began selling fresh apples directly to farm visitors. This was over a decade before the founding of the direct-to-consumer Sonoma County Farm Trails. By the time the International and Russian River Slow Food organization declared the Gravenstein apple as a vital “heirloom” species, the Walkers were already approaching their second century of apple farming. The family farm was powered by horses until the first tractor was bought in 1935.

Walker Apples have been shipped all around the world and have earned Lee and his family many awards, including a recent (2017) Farm Family of the Year honor by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. A familiar presence at the annual Farm Trails’ Gravenstein Fair at Sebastopol’s Ragle Ranch Park, the Walkers continue to grow 25 apple varietals on their Green Valley ranch, just west of Graton.

Besides his three children, Walker is survived by Lee III’s wife Barbara and grandsons Thomas Beckman, Kyler Walker and Clay Walker. He also leaves behind four great-grandchildren (Austin and Blaine Beckman, Landon Lee Walker and Violet Walker.) His brother Arthur “Bob” also survives.

Lee III told the crowd about the many long days of farming the orchards only to see his father take off many afternoons to go coach a baseball team somewhere. “He loved to coach. He’d always come home and tell us something else he learned that day. He listened to everybody and was always advancing,” he said.

Lee’s sister-in-law Cindy added a twist about her father-in-law’s listening skills. “He would always be listening,” she said, “but he was actually hard of hearing. He was always misinterpreting what everybody said. He had an independent soul.”

Walker also found time to volunteer in his community. He was a longtime supporter of the Graton Fire Department and a member of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, Sonoma County Farm Trails and Sonoma County Trail Blazers. He helped coach for many years at El Molino High School, starting with the school’s first baseball coach Tom Glover.

Walker was buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery, 1700 Pleasant Hill Road on March 26, 2022. Family friend and local church leader Jerry Lites presided. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations may be made to the hospice organization of Anchor Health, 505 San Marin Drive, Ste. B100, Novato, CA. 94945.

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