02/27/09 — Pickle company's honorary chairman known for humor, dedication

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Pickle company's honorary chairman known for humor, dedication

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on February 27, 2009 1:46 PM

MOUNT OLIVE --  Two Mount Olive locals sat at a table in the Southern Belle restaurant, talking about the past.

"We always got along, didn't we, Johnny?"

"Far as I know."

"We never had any disagreements. I always respected him."

"I leave it up to the individual to get themselves in trouble. I don't want to be accused of aiding and abetting."

The quiet restaurant rang with laughter.

One of the two men was Nelson Bland, longtime reporter and columnist. The other, former pickle president and presiding purveyor of puns, known to one and all as a friend -- and known to his friends as Mr. Johnny Walker.

"He still goes to the pickle plant. Do you have any authority now, Johnny?" Bland asked.

"Didn't then," Walker quipped.

For more than half a century, Walker has been a mainstay in the community, known for his sharp wit, sense of humor, talent for business and dedication to friends and family. The 89-year-old, born in Burlington, is nothing less than a living legend, and everyone has a story to tell about him.

"He is one of Mount Olive's finest citizens," Bland said. "Used to, when I'd go to the pickle plant, I'd go in the back door and go straight to his office. I didn't have to make an appointment, didn't have to see a secretary -- 'Come on in, Nelson, come on in.' He's a very casual person, a very nice man. I've never even heard the man curse."

Walker was 31 years old and had been with the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. for only a handful of years when he took over in 1955, picking up the reins when then-president I.F. Witherington died. Walker's intelligence, unassuming presence and way with words soon made him invaluable to the company and the community.

"Everybody likes him. I can tell you, he's always come up with a pun about something. Everything I was doing, he'd say something about it. He'd go back and look up old stuff in the newspapers, bound copies, and come back and show me the thing and tell me the stories," Bland said. "He's always been a saint of a person, he'd do anything in the world he can to help you. He doesn't have that arrogant attitude of a lot of CEOs, people in the upper echelons."

Many people might not know that Walker rubbed elbows with some of the most powerful men in America while attending Harvard School of Business. The Davidson alumnus earned a master's degree in business administration alongside Marvin Traub, the brain behind Bloomingdale's department store, James Burke of the Johnson & Johnson Co. and Peter McColough, instrumental in developing the Xerox corporation.

The Harvard business school Class of 1949 produced an unequaled crop of young minds, and Walker's business savvy helped grow the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. into the largest pickle company in the southeastern United States, and one of the best-known in the world.

Not only did Walker do it with a smile, he made the people around him smile, too. Even if the way he did it sometimes raised a few eyebrows.

Anne Comer, waitress at the Southern Belle, met Walker 15 years ago when she first started working at the restaurant. He's a good tipper, and likes to have fish on Fridays, she said.

"Usually he comes in here at lunch time. I wouldn't tell him, but he's a real nice guy. He's very likable," she said.

Mrs. Comer has seen more than one rendition of one of Walker's special routines: pretending to be under the influence.

"He put on a drunk skit one morning. These people really thought he was drunk, and he took them over to the pickle company, giving them the tour. The first time I saw him do that, I thought he was really drinking, I did," Mrs. Comer said. "I remember one day at lunchtime, he had found a beer bottle out in a yard, or a beer can, or something. He came in here, walking with it like he was so drunk that he couldn't stand up."

She looked over at Walker.

"Did you have anything to drink today? I didn't know if you had any liquor today."

"No, no ma'am. I don't touch it any more," he said.

"You don't touch it?"

"No, it just goes straight down."

Fifteen years later, the routine still makes people laugh.

"He has a great sense of humor, and that's good in anybody," Bland said. "I don't know anybody who doesn't like Johnny. I see him walking around, talking to people, and I'll ask him, 'Johnny, you know who that is?' 'I don't know, I've never seen them before.'"

Mount Olive Police Chief Ralph Schroeder agrees. The Walkers and his family have attended the same church for more than 30 years, and met when Schroeder and his wife were married.

"Mr. Johnny has probably got more jokes than Bob Hope, and they all revolve around pickles," Schroeder said. "He would always have a joke. He's a kidder."

But not only can Walker tell a joke, he can take his own share of ribbing, Schroeder recalled.

"We got to talking one day about football. Somebody said, 'Yeah, Johnny, you were there when they were playing without masks,'" Schroeder said.

Wilson K. "Hooty" Lewis has known Walker for many years through their work with the Mount Olive Jaycees.

"He's always been delightful to be with, always a lot of fun. He'll catch you with a joke," Lewis said. "He's a good fellow. He doesn't know a stranger, he'll walk up to anybody in the world and start talking to them."

The Mt. Olive Pickle Co. blossomed under Walker's leadership, developing new marketing strategies, expanding its product line and becoming a household name.

"It really thrived under his leadership," Lewis said.

Walker has also been active in the Mount Olive Presbyterian Church for many years, serving as clerk of the church's session, the leadership of the church's governing board.

"He's been a very faithful churchgoer, provided outstanding leadership. Whenever you're around him, it's just a delight. I can't keep up with him. He keeps church from getting too serious. God loves humor, too," said the Rev. Steve Wicks, pastor of the church. "I always kid him if he misses church, he'll be getting a pastoral visit. He'll say, 'No I'm not, either.'"

Margaret Walker remembers the teasing she endured when Johnny proposed to her.

"He asked me, 'You wouldn't want to live in a small town in eastern North Carolina with a railroad track running through the middle of main street?' I said, 'If it were with you, I would,'" Mrs. Walker said.

The couple first met in Florida in 1944, in the last month of World War II. Mrs. Walker was going on a trip to Brazil, while Walker was stationed there with the Navy.

"He was so much fun. I loved his blue eyes," she said.

The two went their separate ways after meeting, and didn't see each other again for seven years, when a chance encounter in a church in Burlington brought them back together. They married not long after.

"My father was a minister, so he married us. Johnny would always say, 'I got a cheap wedding, but a very expensive marriage,'" Mrs. Walker said.

They married in 1953, and had daughters Ann, Lea and youngest child Pat, who passed away in 1974. The couple are celebrating their 56th anniversary this year.

"He would say, 'It just feels longer,'" Mrs. Walker said.

Walker retired in 1990, becoming president emeritus of the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. He remains a loyal football and tennis fan, and loves to cheer on his alma mater, Davidson College. He still attends church, keeps in touch with friends and serves on the board of the Southern Bank in Mount Olive.

His family sometimes teases him about getting a daily "people fix."

"He loves people. He enjoys talking to all ages and stations in life," Mrs. Walker said.

In 1998, he founded the New Year's Eve pickle drop, similar to the celebration in Times Square, but recognizing Mount Olive's unique business heritage by lowering a giant pickle into a vat. More than 1,700 people attended the 10th annual drop in December, and the Walkers wouldn't have missed it for the world -- especially Johnny.

"He's a born salesman," Mrs. Walker said. "He says when you say you're in the pickle business, people laugh, but it's the truth. Everybody in the world knows about Cucumber and Vine."