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Elder's reach felt as far away as Russia

Memorial service held for James Wilbur Walton

Posted: Wednesday, November 26, 2003

World War II veteran and Tlingit tribal elder James Wilbur Walton was remembered Tuesday for the dignity he showed as a citizen of the world.

About 100 people attended the Centennial Hall service that began with an Alaska Native Veterans honor guard folding the American flag that had covered his casket and presenting it to his family.

Walton, also known by his Tlingit name Khaalaaxh, died Nov. 18 in Juneau at the age of 80 as a leader of the Kaagwaataan Wolf House, Eagle/Wolf Moiety, of Sitka.

Grandchildren followed with Baha'i readings, honoring the man internationally recognized as a leader in the Baha'i Faith.

Joyce Shales, his daughter, said Monday that she was receiving e-mail condolences from as far away as Russia and Israel before she had a chance to tell her sister that their father was gone.

"My dad always said an Indian can always put an arm round one more person - the more diverse the better," she said.

Before delivering the eulogy, niece Loretta King recalled Walton's "dedicated focus and zeal to help humanity," particularly in teaching children the importance of leading alcohol-free lives.

"Undoubtedly, the Baha'i Faith saved his life and gave him a path to walk," she said.

Walton came to the faith in 1953, when he was 30, at the lowest point in his life, said King, who spent 15 years at the Baha'i World Center in Haifa, Israel. Walton's programs, particularly the International Cross-Cultural Alcohol Program, to help people in the Russian Far East live alcohol-free lives served as a model for Baha'i programs as far away as Africa and Australia.

"He inspired thousands of people to make a difference in the world," said friend Susan Christianson, now the deputy communications director in the governor's office, before the service.

She recalled the effect he had on the people of Cherskiy, a community in northeastern Russia that may be as far north as people live in the world "that makes Barrow look like a metropolis."

"They loved him there," she said.

One day five or six years ago he was talking with students in his apartment, slipped on ice in a cold room and broke bones in his nose that nearly caused him to bleed to death.

The attending physician donated blood to keep him alive, she recalled, but he knew they would have to evacuate Walton from the closed Russian city back to Alaska to save his life.

With the help of friends in Juneau working numerous telephones to reach Alaska's governor, the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. State Department and the Russian government, they got Walton to Anchorage in a day.

"I really believe it was the work of God," Christianson said, adding that the rescue effort made international news.

"He thought he was going to die," said Roberta Charles, a niece from Port Angeles, Wash.

Shales said the people in Russia willed him to live.

Walton began working in the Russian Republic of Sakha after attending a healthy-lifestyle summit in Moscow with Shales and seeing the problems people there were facing from alcohol. Christianson said that later a woman from a group that herded reindeer said Walton came into their lives "and woke them up."

She said Walton was 72 when he went to Yakutsk, in Sakha, alone and unable to speak the native language.

Shales said his presence demanded respect when she was growing up. A nod of approval meant a lot. In Yakutsk, she said, his age and experience inspired instant respect because people didn't live to be as old there.

When he saw the indigenous people of northern Asia, he felt like he belonged there, she added. But he also appreciated that diversity. The Baha'i Faith that inspired his dedication to helping people also teaches respect for, and preservation of, other cultures, she said.

Shales said her father had the opportunity to see Tlingit artifacts in the Museum of Anthropology in St. Petersburg, Russia, half a world away from his ancestral home, which had once been the capital of Russian North America.

At Tuesday's service, Cyril George, a former classmate of Walton at Sheldon Jackson School in Sitka, opened with words in Tlingit and recalled how Walton loved to tell stories in the language.

"When he became your friend, you had a friend for life," said George, who now lives in Juneau. "I'm thankful and proud that he was my friend."

Charlene Baker, a friend from the Yukon, had known Walton before she came to Juneau to learn weaving, through their common Baha'i faith. She said, though, that she was representing her family at the service, and, really, Walton was more family than friend.

He stressed education, she said. He had a dream of establishing a tribal college and told her to continue her studies toward a public administration degree because she would be needed there.

King, in her eulogy, noted words people said about Walton that kept coming up - perseverance, persistence, tenacity and dignity.

He led a full life, she said, and he used his experience, "building a better world."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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