By Jefferson Beavers, creative writing MFA communication specialist
Dr. James E. Walton, a professor emeritus of English at Fresno State and the first faculty to serve as coordinator of the university’s Africana Studies Program, passed away in Fresno on August 15, 2019. He was 74.
An educator for more than half a century, Dr. Walton taught American literature and writing at the university from 1990 to 2018. He retired as chair emeritus of both English and Africana Studies.
Before coming to Fresno State, Dr. Walton taught for 20 years at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, where he received the Great Teacher Award in 1989. He previously taught for three years at Canton McKinley High School in Canton, Ohio.
Dr. Walton’s survivors include his wife, Doris Walton; son, Leonard Longmire; daughter, Tiffany Medois (Jephte); grandchildren Lenell Longmire (Ashley) and Solomon Walton; and great-grandchildren Arianna and Lathan Longmire. He is also survived by five sisters and two brothers.
There will be no funeral services. Faculty and staff from English and Africana Studies will present a memorial tribute in honor of Dr. Walton at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019 inside the Wahlberg Recital Hall, in Fresno State’s Music Building. Admission is free. Parking is free in recommended lots P31 or P30. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, memorial gifts be made to a Lewy body dementia or Alzheimer’s support organization.
Honora Chapman, interim dean of Fresno State’s College of Arts and Humanities, praised Dr. Walton’s high level of professionalism, especially during his multiple terms as English chair. “He managed the largest faculty in our college with great skill and humanity,” she said. “All of his colleagues can attest what a gracious man he was.”
Michelle DenBeste, dean of Fresno State’s College of Social Sciences, said Dr. Walton’s leadership was crucial in building an Africana Studies Program that would endure. “Even when he was no longer chair and was housed in another department, he still stopped by to say hello, participated in events, and served as a mentor to faculty and students,” she said.
Dr. Walton specialized in American literature. His published scholarship covered a broad range of writers, artists, and topics: James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Miles Davis, Ralph Ellison, the Harlem Renaissance, and standardized test scores. In 2008, he travelled to France to participate in the Richard Wright Centennial Conference at the American University of Paris.
In 1998, Dr. Walton taught an American literature course to students in Tokyo, Japan via the internet, the first Fresno State course to be taught internationally by remote. At both Mount Union and Fresno State, he taught five summers as an exchange professor in Osaka, Japan, and one summer in Seoul, South Korea.
For many years, Dr. Walton served as a table leader and consultant for Educational Testing Service (ETS) of Princeton. He was also commissioned by The Fresno Bee as a Valley Voices columnist.
Meta Schettler, associate professor of Africana Studies, credited Dr. Walton with growing the Africana Studies Program, previously known on campus as Ethnic Studies, after the creation of a bachelor’s degree in 1999.
“Jim’s unflagging kindness and generosity made him a consummate teacher, a strong and supportive colleague, and a successful and expansive chair of Africana Studies” Schettler said. “As Toni Morrison taught us, ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else,’ and Dr. Walton served tirelessly to expand freedom by promoting American literature, African American culture, and a true and abiding love of reading and books.”
Schettler said Dr. Walton significantly increased the program’s outreach by establishing the Fresno State Gospel Choir; by serving as adviser to Uhuru Na Umoja, the Black student newspaper on campus; and by supporting student-centered events such as the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. student conference, which at one time brought up to 500 Central Valley K-12 students to campus annually to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy of service, civic engagement, and social justice.
Dr. Walton — who, as a young person, was on the National Mall in 1963 for Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech — also served on the committee to install Dr. King’s statue in the Peace Garden, as well as the committee that initiated the building of the Save Mart Center.
With Malik Simba, professor emeritus of Africana Studies, Dr. Walton co-founded the Gunnar Myrdal/Martin Luther King Jr. lecture series, which has brought to campus such speakers as Cornel West, Michael Erik Dyson, Essence editor Susan L. Taylor, Terry McMillan, Donna Brazile, Eugene Robinson, and more.
Simba said he and Dr. Walton co-taught a course on the history and cultural importance of Malcolm X. Working with his longtime friend and collaborator within the classroom setting, Simba said he witnessed the consummate “master teacher” whose first priority was to elevate the critical thinking skills of students.
“I observed a colleague who had the ultimate compassion for students and a passion for the subject matter of civil rights and human rights,” Simba said. “Jim helped students to find the ‘angels’ within, and to fly as bourgeoning intellectuals.”
Lisa Weston, interim chair of the English Department, said Dr. Walton was “a role model for collegiality” and an exemplary mentor to her when she served as his assistant chair. “Jim was also a role model as a teacher,” Weston said, “probably one of the best and most engaged, and certainly among the most beloved, teachers at the university.”
Weston said Dr. Walton “held us together” in his tenure as English Department chair, stressing his tone of inclusion during a time the field of English Studies expanded as budgets shrunk. “He made sure that everyone felt they were part of a whole, of a reading and writing community fighting the good fight,” she said.
She noted, in particular, Dr. Walton’s commitment to contingent faculty, the part-time lecturers who have become more and more relied upon by the university to teach first-year writing and general education courses. “Jim made sure that all those who worked in the English Department were included and respected, especially lecturers,” Weston said. “He supported their rights and fiercely defended their academic expertise.”
Born James Edward Walton on Sept. 13, 1944 in Bessemer, Alabama, Dr. Walton was the middle of Willie Walton and Mary Walton’s three children. According to his wife, Doris Walton, his parents must have separated when they were young; he grew up with his mother and he didn’t meet his father until he was an adult.
Doris Walton said Dr. Walton spent a lot of time while growing up with his grandmother, who taught him to read. He attended a two-room school house in Alabama. His early studies enabled him to move up a grade when his mother moved the family north to Ohio and she re-married. He now had five more sisters and two more brothers.
The family spent summers in Benton Harbor, Michigan, according to Doris Walton, where they helped with farming and picking berries. Dr. Walton graduated from high school at age 16 and had initial plans to join the U.S. military — but that didn’t happen.
Dr. Walton grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church and was an active member in the church all his life. Doris Walton said his church membership changed the direction of his life around the time he graduated from high school.
“The Black SDA church was on one side of town, and the White SDA church was on the other,” Doris Walton said. “The Christmas program at the White church needed someone to play the part of a Black person, and Jim was a good student and was contacted. That’s where he met Dr. Joseph Nozaki.”
Those who knew Dr. Walton well at Fresno State know by heart the story of Dr. Nozaki. In a short autobiography, provided by his wife after his passing, Dr. Walton tells his own story:
“After seeing him across town in a church skit only once, Dr. Joseph Nozaki, just completing his training as a surgeon at Aultman Hospital in Canton, Ohio, physically drove Walton from over 500 miles from Canton, Ohio and a disgruntled stepfather to Berrien Springs, Michigan and Andrews University, the college where he had matriculated. Using his wallet and his influence, he was able to get James enrolled right away. Before leaving campus, Dr. Nozaki set Walton up with a job working at College Woods Product, laughingly referred by the students as College Workers Purgatory.
“Existing primarily on government-surplus peanut butter, Walton survived. One day he spotted some tubes in the waste can. He took those tubes to his room, stuck the long end of a clothes hanger in the tubes and was surprised to be able to listen to WLS, a radio station that made his eating experience almost joyful.
“At Kent State, where Walton transferred to save money in his junior year, he majored in English and taught that subject at Canton McKinley High School for three years, 1967-1970, winning the 1960 City Championship in the 880 yard run (1/2 mile). He already owned the Andrews College record in the mile.
“Fast forward some years, Walton had taught high school and spent time teaching as an exchange professor in Japan. In the 1970s, for his Master’s thesis, Walton wrote original criticism of James Baldwin’s ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ and ‘Another Country’; Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’ and his searing autobiography, ‘Black Boy’; Chester Himes’ ‘If He Hollers, Let Him Go’ and ‘Third Generation’; and Ralph Ellison’s incomparable ‘Invisible Man’; making Walton the perfect candidate and the first Black male to teach at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. Demonstrating in a dissertation how these works could be used in the modern classroom earned Walton a doctorate in secondary education from the University of Akron in 1976, the same year Walton started teaching in three departments at Mount Union simultaneously: English, education, and history.
“In Fresno, Walton miraculously was reunited with Dr. Joseph Nozaki after Walton, unknowingly, had agreed to give a graduation speech at Fresno Asian SDA, a church — it turns out — that was bought and paid for, in part, by Dr. Nozaki.”
Dr. Nozaki passed away a few months before Dr. Walton.
Dr. Walton married “the true love of his life,” Doris Harrington Longmire on June 15, 1974. Doris said they met just after he started teaching at Mount Union and she was teaching high school.
“Jim was trying to find a date for some formal function,” Doris Walton remembered. “A family friend said, ‘I know somebody!’ and asked me if it would be okay. He called, and we did go to the formal together. Then our first date was to go see the movie ‘The Way We Were.’”
Dr. Walton brought an immediate infusion of African American authors into the American literature classes taught at Fresno State when he arrived in the early ’90s, impacting the reading lives of a generation of students. Among his favorites to teach: Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Toni Morrison’s “The Sluest Eye,” August Wilson’s “Fences,” and many more.
Doris Walton said in their first years in Fresno, she would sit in on Dr. Walton’s American lit classes. She would later work at Fresno State from 2000 to 2014, serving as an administrative support coordinator with the CalStateTEACH program, Fresno Regional Center, housed in Fresno State’s Kremen School of Education and Human Development.
“I got interested in Black literature myself from him,” Doris Walton said. “It excited me. I wasn’t even familiar with those names at first.”
Dr. Walton’s son, Leonard Longmire, said his father was “as humble as his voice and his spirit.” A small-business owner by day and professional DJ by night, Longmire always enjoyed hearing his dad speak, whether it was addressing family, students, or the community.
“I admired him a lot,” Longmire said. “I think about the sheer poverty that my dad came from. Being an African American male in the United States of America, knowing everything we’ve gone through just to exist, let alone to reach some level of accomplishment in life, in academia, in the arts. This city should celebrate my dad, because he brought a whole lot to so many people’s lives.”
Longmire said he felt pressure growing up among a family of educators, his mom and dad and sister all with multiple degrees and doctorates. “I was the creative one who somehow found his way in art and music” among academics, he said.
But Dr. Walton found a way to pull his son and his unique talents into his own work at the university.
At one time, Longmire hosted a popular jazz show on the campus radio station, 90.7 KFSR. Dr. Walton gave his son a copy of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” asked him to read it and understand the novel’s basics, and then invited him to come speak to his students for 15 or 20 minutes about jazz while they were discussing the book.
“In the back of my mind, I kept thinking — did Dr. Walton really just ask DJ Mr. Leonard to come speak to his literature class?” Longmire said, laughing. “I remember thinking, maybe you meant my mother or my sister, somebody with credentials?”
The class loved Longmire’s visit, he said. Dr. Walton praised him. Then his dad asked him to give talks about jazz to more of his classes, and even some classes of his colleagues. He got a chance to speak on the pioneering music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and more.
“It gave me confidence in speaking up on things that I know about as a creative person,” Longmire said. “He opened the doors for me to be out here, speaking and addressing the community at large on music and culture.”
Dr. Walton’s daughter, Tiffany Medois, said her father’s love of literature and writing is in her DNA. A marketing copywriter, she often phoned her dad at odd times to ask for his punctuation advice. He would always answer — sometimes, he even picked up while in class.
“Every time I write, I’m always thinking of him,” Medois said. “He helped to validate my talent. I have writing confidence because of him. For the longest time, I didn’t fully realize how commas and semicolons worked, but he helped me with the technical stuff I didn’t understand. He helped me gather and create structure in my words, my voice.”
Dr. Walton was a prose stylist who deeply admired the successful use of a semicolon; he even mentioned it, in his trademark dry style, in his autobiography.
“At Fresno State, Walton served as faculty adviser to the Uhuru Na Umoja, the Black student newspaper on campus. … He even functioned as faculty adviser to the Uhuru after retirement because he was one of the few who really understood proper use of the semicolon.”
Medois remembered when Dr. Walton proofread something she wrote and soon afterward met her boss at the time. “He told my boss the draft was perfect, even my semicolons,” Medois said. “My boss and I were laughing.”
Medois recalled joining Dr. Walton for his last summer as an exchange professor. It was the first and only time she was able to join him in Japan, which felt bittersweet even then. They rode the bullet train. They walked the Shinjuku business district, the city of youth depicted in the film “Lost in Translation.” They visited a soul club that played old ’50s and ’60s Motown music from the States.
“I could see his excitement for the country and for the language,” she said. “I could see his connection with the students, his interest in them. He was so curious about everything. I was seeing, maybe, what he would have been like in his own youth, just having fun.”
In his autobiography, Dr. Walton concluded with a thought about travel and a thought about his retirement from Fresno State.
“Fifty years in the classroom, including five summers in Japan and one in South Korea, were enough for Walton. Egypt, Mexico, Amsterdam, Cuba, Paris, and Jamaica are other sites he has visited, plus most major U.S. cities.
“Upon his official retirement in 2013, then-university President John Welty sent him a letter granting three most distinctive honors: Chair Emeritus of English, Professor Emeritus of English, and Chair Emeritus of Africana Studies.”
That is where Dr. Walton’s short autobiography ends; so, too, this remembrance will end.
~ Written by Jefferson Beavers, Communication Specialist, Department of English