Johnny Walker dies at age 87
By Steve Herring
Published in News on February 19, 2013 1:46 PM
MOUNT OLIVE -- John N. "Johnny" Walker, the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. president emeritus who was as much at home on the pickle-packing line as he was the boardroom, and who elevated pickle puns to an art form, has died.
The Harvard-educated Walker, who would have turned 88 on May 3, died Monday morning just four months after the death of his wife of 59 years, Margaret.
Funeral arrangements are pending at Tyndall Funeral Home.
The Walkers have two daughters, Ann Fulton Walker of Winston-Salem and Lea Ravenel Walker of Raleigh and two grandsons, Dalton Prioleau Marshall and Stuart Haizlip Marshall of Raleigh. They were preceded in death by their daughter, Patricia Neal Walker.
Known for his business acumen, quick wit, sense of humor and dedication to friends and family, Walker was an icon in the community and the pickle industry.
One of his last public appearances was at his beloved Mt. Olive Pickle Co. for the annual New Year's Pickle Drop that he started more than a decade ago.
Although having to use a walker, he still made his rounds, talking and joking with the many people who stopped to talk and trade quips with him.
"He was respected by all for his integrity, strength of character and good humor," said Bill Bryan, who succeeded Walker as company president. "He had a great passion for Mt. Olive Pickle Co. and its people. Our company's growth continues to benefit from the strategic direction that he set more than 50 years ago. It is a sad day here at Mt. Olive Pickle Co."
Growing up in Mount Olive, Bryan has known Walker since he was a child. However, he recalls his first business lesson from Walker.
Bryan, who returned home after living away from Mount Olive for a while, remembers calling on Walker for a contribution for a charitable program he was working on.
"I made the request, and Johnny said, 'OK,'" Bryan said. "I then started to tell Johnny all of the reasons that he ought to give money to this organization. He stopped me and said, 'I am going to give you your first lesson. You have gotten the order, it is time to say thank you and leave.'"
Julie Beck, a long-time volunteer and organizer with the North Carolina Pickle Festival, laughs about what she calls the "Johnny Walkerisms" that she learned from Walker.
"I got a lot of things from Johnny Walker, but one thing that sticks with me is he has all of these little sayings," she said. "To this day, all of my funny little sayings about the Pickle Festival come straight from Johnny Walker like, 'you will have a dill-lightful time, you will relish your time at the time at the Pickle Festival, it is big dill.'
"I got all of those from Johnny Walker. Any time I did a TV interview or newspaper interview I would use one of those Johnny Walkerism because that is where I got them from. He was the king of them."
Walker was very supportive of the festival, and receptive to new ideas, Ms. Beck said.
"He was a good guy and will be sorely missed," she said.
Born in Burlington, Walker is a graduate of Davidson College where he played football and tennis. He would often joke that he played football prior to the use of football helmets.
He was recognized for his academic success and extracurricular involvement at Davidson through his induction into the Omicron Delta Kappa Society.
Walker was an avid tennis player and the courts at Mount Olive College are named in his honor.
One of his regular opponents was Dr. Hervy B. Kornegay Sr. of Calypso.
"Johnny is going to be very, very missed in this community," Kornegay said. "He has been a great leader. He is a great person, and I admire him. I hold him dear to my heart."
Walker received his master's degree in business administration from Harvard in 1949, and moved back to his home state to accept a job at Mt. Olive Pickle Co. eventually becoming president.
He retired in May 1990, becoming president emeritus, but continued to maintain an office at the plant where he was a "regular presence for many, many years," Bryan said.
He continued to serve on the company's board of directors until 1995.
Walker has served as a trustee of Mount Olive College and St. Andrews Presbyterian College, a member of the Southern Bank and Trust Co. Board of Directors, a member of the Medical Benevolence Foundation.
Both Walker and his wife were very active in the Mount Olive Presbyterian Church, as well as the larger church, said the Rev. Steven Wicks, church pastor. Walker was an elder, and had served as treasurer and clerk of session on the church's governing board.
"It was very evident to me that he had a tremendous impact on our community in a positive way and of course on the pickle company, the pickle industry and certainly our church," Wicks said. "He was just a good and kind and God-fearing man.
"That was evident in his faith and the way he lived his life and in the way he loved his family and cared for them."
Wicks, who has been at the church for 10 years, said that shortly after he became pastor that Walker came to see him, and asked what he or the church could do to help him.
"It was a very personal contact that really meant a lot. He didn't have to come by my office and see a new preacher... show that kind of interest, but that was the kind of man that he was. That meant a lot to me early on in my ministry here."
Wicks also remembers Walker's well-known less-serious side, and enjoyed his humor and wit.
For a while Mt. Olive Pickle Co. had short ballpoint pens that would expand to write with.
"So Johnny comes up to me one Sunday and he says, "I want to show you this pen,'" Wicks said. "'See how you pull it out and it expands.' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Now I want this to be an example for your sermon.' I said, 'OK.'
"He closes it and says, 'Keep it short.' Now isn't that classic Johnny? I used to joke about that in the pulpit for a long time. I kept the pen right there on a shelf underneath the pulpit. I would pull it out every now and say, 'Johnny I know you said keep it short.' I would shorten the pen back, and say, 'I will do my best today,' and he would laugh and I would laugh. I am just so grateful to have gotten to know him."