I spoke to Chief Michael Walker for the first time back in July. The Pelham Fire Department had adopted "red shirt Fridays," a program meant to remember the courage, bravery and dedication of the New York City firefighters who gave their lives on September 11, 2001.
Cordial, he answered my questions in a plainspoken manner and without ever lifting his voice above the soft just barely audible enough volume I would later learn that he rarely broke out of. Keeping his tone even, Walker had a funny way of emphasizing specific words - a short gasp that proceeded his answer.
"Ohhh yeah," he would say if he agreed with something I had asked him, the 'o' sound hard and the 'h' stretched out. You could always imagine him vigorously nodding his head even during phone interviews.
He spoke with a flat, almost mid-western accent. Having been raised in upstate New York and working in Fort Madison, Iowa it may have been a mixture of both influences.
"I'm more of a mountain boy," he told me once.
Walker almost never failed to call me back for any reason. During the height of the ice storm recovery operation, when you could hear the fact that he had been working 20 hours a day for almost a week in his voice, he politely answered my questions before hanging up to attend an emergency management meeting.
The best contacts you can have will always take your calls, fit you into their schedule for the day and answer your questions candidly. Walker rose to the top of my list after I interviewed him about the death of a fellow firefighter and friend. The man had been on vacation with his family at the time and suffered a massive heart attack.
"He is one of those people that lives that kind of a life such that he's a decent Christian human being. You look at yourself and you wonder, 'I wish that I could be like him,'" Walker said, the words coming with thick, full pauses between them. "I never heard him say a bad word about anybody. He was always upbeat and supportive. He will do anything for you."
I learned that he and Walker had been workout buddies and yet on the morning of hearing the news of his friend and coworker's death, he took the time to talk to me a little bit about what kind of a man he had been.
I ran into Walker off and on for the next six months, covering the department's fire safety outreach program to school children, their budget shortfalls and the equipment and new facility they so desperately needed the taxpayers to give them. Up until he resigned to take a position as chief of the Yarmouth, Mass., fire department a few days ago Walker was one of my best contacts in Pelham.
I will be sorry to see him go.