What’s in a name? It depends upon your perspective I guess unless you’re talking about Harold “Grump” Walker. I was always taught to never use derogatory names when referring to my elders but I never knew Grump as anything other than “Grump.” His nick-name, and the legacy he left behind is our story today.
Harold Walker was born in Andover, Massachusetts in 1901. An accomplished athlete and sports enthusiast, he attended and graduated from the University of Illinois on a baseball scholarship. After playing semi-pro baseball for a few years, Walker joined the faculty at Ashland High School in 1930 as a Science teacher. Utilizing his sports background, he quickly became coach for football, baseball, and basketball.
The name “Grump” came from the students he taught either in the classroom or on the field. Remembering that this was in the 1930s, I’m sure that no one dared call him that to his face, but eventually the name stuck. Sifting through the archived pictures of Grump at the Ashland Historical Society, and my own recollection of him, it was easy to see where the name came from. I think he enjoyed frowning more than smiling. He did have a hearing impairment though which he overcame by learning to read lips.
Grump’s dedication to his students is well documented. His teaching skills utilized the art of basic competition to help his students achieve more whether it involved science or sports. Sports, however, are probably his greatest achievement. Citing football, which he is most noteworthy, Walker amassed an amazing record of 146 wins and 62 losses during his career. He coached three undefeated seasons in 1932, 1943, and 1952.
Local sports legend Scooch Giargiari was Grump’s quarterback in the 1952 season. A former Ashland High football coach himself, which by the way in 1977 coached the only other undefeated season since 1952, Giargiari recalled his former coach as “a master of misdirection.” He had the unique ability of creating plays which sent the opposition one way, while Ashland went the other. Scooch remembers Grump saying that we are going to practice 3 plays against Hopkinton, and the third will result in a touchdown. Never questioning his coach, Scooch followed the game plan in the next game against Hopkinton and sure enough, the third play resulted in a touchdown! Grump’s offense was so exact that Ashland only punted 3 times in the 1952 season.
In 2005, Lexington High School’s football coach Billy Tighe, who was still coach at 81 years of age, and played under Walker at Ashland High (class of 1942) was quoted in a Marvin Pave article published in the Boston Globe:
“Walker was a great baseball player at the University of Illinois and although he had a hearing problem, he could read lips. He was an innovative, brilliant man, just like my football coach at BU, Buff Donelli, who used to have all his quarterbacks watch the pro football team in town then, the Boston Yanks, and then compare our scouting report to his. I knew after the influences of people like Grump Walker and Buff Donelli that I wanted to be a coach.”
Walker’s teams were so good that other towns in our area refused to play against them. No problem for Grump. He would scout around for other teams to play Ashland High. Much like Billy Tighe’s reference to Buff Donelli, Walker would study the players from opposing teams to identify their strengths and weaknesses. He had a keen ability to remember names, dates, places, and scores, often reciting them to his player’s amazement.
Grump never forgot his students. Even after graduation, he personally helped finance students of limited means that were going on to college. His career spanned 34 years. In 1964, the football field at Ashland High was named Walker Field in his honor. He was always seen on the sidelines and the end zones. He was also the Grand Marshal at the Ashland Day celebration in 1986.
Grump died in the summer of 1993, but his name and legacy remains. If you follow the access road to the MBTA from West Union Street, and look over your shoulder at the former Ashland High School, the first thing you will see is the bright blue and white sign “Walker Field.”
Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions