Olympic history will be forever altered Thursday. Still some 324 days away from the Sochi 2014 Winter Games and 1,234 days from the 2016 Games in Brazil, just exactly how you might ask? Age will no doubt be re-defined Thursday when Walter Walsh, a 1948 Olympian in the sport of Shooting, becomes the oldest Olympian to have ever lived at 105 years and 321 days.
Walsh, set to turn 106 on May 4, will eclipse another American Olympian, Rudolf Schrader, whom Olympic historians say lived not past 320 days into his 105th birthday.
“Unfortunately, we only know that he (Rudolf Schrader) died in January 1981 and don’t have a precise date of death,” confirmed renowned Olympic historian Dr. Bill Mallon. “But if you make it 31 January, so he was as old as he could be, he was 105 years, 320 days old at his death. Our source for many dates of death is the Social Security Death Index, which until the 1980s, listed only the month and year of death, and we haven’t been able to track a date from any other source.”
For a complete list of Olympic Centenarians, check out Olympic historian Paul Tchir’s list. According to Tchir, the next oldest Olympian is Swiss Hans Erni who also competed in London with Walsh when art was then an Olympic competition. Currently, there are just six Olympians in total still living beyond the century mark.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “It’s not the age of life, but the depth of life.” On this occasion, we get to proudly celebrate both. Walsh was born May 4, 1907 in New Jerseyand his life has been one of service, honor, accomplishment and compelling narrative.
He crafted his shooting life as a kid by using a BB gun to shoot clothespins off his Aunt’s clothesline then graduating at the age of 12 to shooting a smoothbore .22 caliber rifle at rats in the city dump on the site where the Meadowlands would one day stand. He’d later go onto to join the Civilian Military Training Corps (CMTC) and the New Jersey National Guard attending shooting matches at the Civilian Marksmanship Program in Camp Perry, Ohio, and winning several awards for his marksmanship skills.
Walsh graduated from Rutgers law school and in 1934 joined the FBI. Not long after he was tracking down notorious crime figures and gang members. As a rookie FBI agent, he discovered the body of Chicago gangster Baby Face Nelson after a shootout that left two FBI agents dead.
“Think about that,” said Alan Abrahamson, an Olympic journalist known to be the last person to interview Walsh and his family back in 2011. “Just 27, in the midst of the Depression, he was a G-Man – when the bureau was very much still making its reputation. He helped make it.”
A year later, Walter helped apprehend Arthur “Doc” Barker of the infamous Barker Gang. Barker complained about being arrested by a “damn baby-faced kid.” That very same day, Walter shot and killed gangster Rusty Gibson.
In 1937, posed as a salesman in a sporting goods store in Bangor, Maine, he helped bring down the Brady Gang, but not before taking two bullets, one to the chest and the other to his right hand. He shot both James Dalhover and gang leader Al Brady after being shot.
He liked being with the bureau and once told a reporter: “I thought to myself, this might be a good outfit to tie up with. I am not trying to pin medals on myself, but the people in the FBI knew that I was very handy with firearms.”
Similar to his FBI career, accounts of his courageousness and spirit as a Marine, fighting in World War II, are legendary. After another brief return to the FBI and the 1948 Olympic Games in London, Walsh would serve another 20-plus years in the Marines Corps as a shooting instructor until his retirement.In 1938, he took a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve and by 1942 Walter Walsh went on active duty. In 1944, drawn by the intensity of World War II, he longed for a spot on the front lines, a spot he would get as a lieutenant colonel staff officer in the First Marine Division.
In 1948, Walsh got to test his shooting prowess against the Olympic competition as a member of Team USA in London. He placed 12th in the Men’s 50m Free Pistol event with a firearm that at the time was fairly uncommon in the United States.
“The competition was, as I remember, the usual exchanges of friendship between members of the various teams,” Walsh recalled during his interview with Abrahamson. “On some of the teams, I’m thinking of the Germans particularly, they spoke in a broken fashion, better English than we did.
“… You had these people competing – they were all trying to do the same thing. They were trying to speak to each other with various degrees of difficulty.
“… It brings about a mixture between these people. You get by with stuttering and making hand motions. It was a great experience for me. And I enjoyed it.”
At the 1952 International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) World Shooting Championships, he won a gold medal with the U.S. team in the 25m Center-Fire Pistol event and was a silver medalist in the individual event as well.
In 1972, Col. Walsh would again participate in Olympic competition, this time as a Team Leader for the USA Shooting Team in Munich. That team won four medals and includes some of the sport’s iconic shooters including Lones Wigger, John Writer, Lanny Bassham andMargaret Murdock.
“Col. Walsh was the Team Captain for the great 1966 USA World Championship Team,” remembers USA Shooting President and two-time Olympic gold medalist Gary Anderson. “He was always respected by all members of our teams because of his truly extraordinary record as an FBI agent in the 1930s and his subsequent, distinguished military record. We were proud to have someone as our Team Captain who had been an outstanding shooter himself. He was Triple Distinguished in Service Pistol, Service Rifle and International. That is a very rare accomplishment. I extend my personal congratulations to Col. Walsh for becoming the oldest living Olympian.”
“I thought he was a great Team Leader for the 1972 Olympic Games and every other trip I took with him,” said the three-time Olympic medalist Wigger who won gold and silver medals at the 1964 Olympic Games and another gold in 1972. “He was always fair and very supportive and did a good job, which is sometimes not easy dealing with athletes. Col Walsh was a gentleman and a great Team Leader. He ran the Marine Corp MTU for a number of years and knew most of the top shooters in the country and was well-liked by all who worked for him and well-respected by everyone.”
“One of the challenges you have with those old enough to have been on the ’72 team is that we seem to have vivid memories of our events, but if the team manager does his job, we have little memory of him at all,” said 1972 Olympic silver medalist Bassham. “The exception is when there is an issue.”
One particular memory, however, Bassham did recall: “Both of my events were concluded, but I was still at the Olympic Village. I asked Col Walsh if I could leave the village for a day and a night to visit a friend in Munich. He saw no problem with the request and made arrangements for me to leave the village. That night the terrorists assaulted the Israeli team. Security was heightened. I had a huge problem. How was I going to get back to my team? We did not have cell phones in those days. If there was a phone in the village associated with the shooting team, I did not have the number. I did not know what to do. Fortunately, I had given the phone number of my friend in Munich to Col. Walsh. It did not take long before he called me. He made arrangements to get me back to the village and join my team. This was no simple matter, and it was greatly appreciated by me.”
The Rest of the Story
Walsh was married for 43 years; his wife passed away in 1980. They had five children together – three daughters and two sons. The family counts 17 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.
Asked to what he credits his longevity as found in this article written by R.R. Keene inLeatherneck Magazine, Walter Walsh ponders for a moment and answers: “To start with, you have to be lucky. Then, if you listen to your parents and follow the path of the straight and narrow, then I think God has mercy on you-permits you to live. That’s about it. It has worked very well for me for a long time … and I’ve forgotten the SOBs. That makes my life easier.”
Bill Vanderool of the American Rifleman wrote in his October 2010 article on Walsh: “At Walsh’s 100th birthday party, his family served three cakes: One had the seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the second, the seal of the United States Marine Corps; and the third bore five Olympic rings. Each represented a major achievement in Walsh’s life, and each could make a major story. For one man to be presented all three indicates just how special that person is.”
Image courtesy USA Shooting