John Walton's tragic and untimely death earlier this week in a small-plane crash at the age of 58 deprives low-income American children of one of their best friends and most generous benefactors. Soft-spoken, unassuming, and selfless, this mega-billionaire, described by one admirer as "the very soul of the choice movement," gave tens of millions of dollars to create better educational opportunities for disadvantaged youngsters. Unlike many philanthropists who pick one path or the other, John was both strategic with respect to policy and open-handed with respect to kids in need. Thousands of youngsters in dozens of communities (including Dayton's PACE program) benefited directly from the Children's Scholarship Fund that he and Theodore Forstmann founded and funded, enabling them to transfer with the help of these private vouchers from dire urban public schools into decent private-school alternatives.
At the same time, John and the Walton Family Foundation underwrote much of the charter-school movement, helping individual schools, state charter associations, and national ventures. Nor did he simply write checks; he served on boards, he checked people out, he made calls, he asked probing questions - and he displayed plenty of grit and determination (as he had in Vietnam decades earlier) when it was necessary to make tough decisions, pull plugs, and reinvent things.
John was also one of the least pretentious and kindest people you'd ever want to know. He drove himself hard - I once watched him pedal a bike up a mountainside in Colorado (as I cruised along the riverbank) - and relished physical as well as policy challenges.
I cannot improve upon the words of Howard Fuller in a Monday-night email to friends (to read his remarks in their entirety, visit http://www.baeo.org): "John was one of the nicest people I have ever met. He was a staunch, unbending warrior in the battle for parental choice. I once asked John why he supported this movement. He said that poor children were getting a raw deal and he wanted to do something about it and he was in a position to do so. Here was a man who could have lived a life of leisure. Instead, he put his money, his intellect, and his energy into the effort to empower low income and working class families to be able to choose the best learning environment for their children. Because of him there are thousands of our children who have a better future. Because of him there is a movement out here that must honor his memory by working harder to advance our cause. I will never forget this kind and decent man. I thank God for allowing him to be in our midst." Indeed. Rest in peace.
"Wal-Mart heir John Walton dies in Wyoming plane crash," by Melissa Nelson, Associated Press, June 30, 2005
"A champion for children: BAEO mourns the loss of John T. Walton, 58," by Howard Fuller