From employer to friend

Rarely does one have the opportunity to publicly express his appreciation for another. Yet this is the opportunity lying before me as I write these words. What has proven to be the most difficult part of this process is now knowing what to say.
What began in September 1991 as a relationship between employer and employee has since evolved into a deep friendship I have since come to appreciate more than ever.
More than 28 years have passed since I first walked into Les Walters’ office at the Journal Record. Sitting behind his desk as the interview process began, my eyes could only see the captain of this journalistic vessel—a stern face hidden behind a thick beard. His countenance came across as a man filled with seriousness and a mission focused on turning out the best community newspaper any rural area could expect.
With the passage of time, these initial impressions were confirmed. The managing editor of the Marion County newspaper was certainly serious when the conversation turned to business.
The journalistic talents honed at Troy State University—now known as Troy University—were at the heart and soul of his mission. His desire was to construct a newspaper staff rarely seen in smaller communities. He wanted a crew which was an extension of the captain. Journalism was serious business and the responsibility the newspaper owed to the community was a serious one.
While not read by the masses as the larger newspapers in metropolitan areas, our boss never watered down the heart and soul of community journalism—to report the news to the best of our ability without favor or partisanship.
But what I would also learn with time was Les Walters was a man with a heart—a compassionate and caring heart for those who call Marion County home, especially for its youth and children. And why not? Deep within his own heart and in his own way, Les Walters is still the young boy who was reared by a loving mother in lower Alabama.
Any child who ever came by the newspaper office in Hamilton could attest to his good nature. When others could not, Les could always connect with a child in ways other adults were unable. His heart is tender and pure. He loves his wife and family, as well as his community, his church and Almighty God. In fact, his relationship with children has always been one which models the one Believers see so plainly displayed in the Bible.
Certainly, his sense of humor can carry him away from time to time, but his heart never leaves the right place—with a genuine concern for others.
Through his profession and for the love of his life, Les found his way to Marion County. He has served our community as a journalist for almost 40 years. He has adopted Marion County and specifically, Hamilton, as his home ever since. Les and Sheri have raised two sons here and now welcome a daughter-in-law and grandsons to their home south of town on every occasion possible.
He has poured his heart and soul into our communities. Not only in Hamilton, but across our area, Les has served as a guest speaker in most of our local schools and assisted with school projects and yearbooks for more than 30 years. He has served as president of the booster club in Hamilton and on committees too numerous to mention. He has held numerous roles in his local church—Hamilton First Baptist—and has served as a mentor to many, including me.

Whether I choose to accept it or not, the extensive journalism career of Les Walters has ended in Marion County, as his retirement goes into effect on Nov. 1. Almost 30 years since I first walked into his office and almost 40 years since his professional career began, the final word has been written and the last edition has been constructed, or as we say in the business, “put to bed.’’
There was a part of me which doubted this day would ever come. Les is the Journal Record to so many in our community. Numerous young adults have come through this office and been led by his tutelage and his bleeding red pen. Excessive editing marks have been made over the years on stories crossing his desk. By a conservative estimate, more than 17,000 of my own stories fell under his watchful eye and red pen since 1991.
But to write only about the journalist in his professional capacity would be painting only half of the picture. Les Walters the man behind the scenes is even more deep and dynamic than most in our community will ever know. His compassion and caring heart have been extended to my family on many occasions over the years—as my family, like all, has dealt with sickness, heartache and death. Any time a member of my family was admitted to the hospital, one could look up a few hours later and into the room he would walk.
If I am being honest, we have shared heartaches together over the years, as we have discussed things at the office well into the night. We loved each other’s family and took pride in each and every achievement of our children. In ways, he loved on my son and daughter as much as I have.

There have been tough times over the years and Les has been there to counsel and pray with me. He has often given sound advice, even when it caused pain, tears and serious introspection. He has proven insightful and almost prophetic at times.
But much more than the tears have been the laughter. Few can tell a joke like him. Few have an acumen for humor as he. Shortly after correcting his employees, Les will be the first to tell a joke or funny story to lighten the moment. Correction is made and the time to move forward comes immediately thereafter.
If only I had the time to write about the humorous times we have shared with my former colleagues Ed Howell, Kenny Avery, Anthony Robbins and so many more. In a business with so few employees, your fellow employees do become family. And Les was always at the heart of the conversation nurturing these close-knit bonds.
Even as my days with the Journal Record began drawing to a close and my efforts to win a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives had begun, Les was there. He was there to offer advice or a word of encouragement. Since the election, he has proven to be a vocal cheerleader. But most importantly, since the votes were counted and the election was over, Les Walters became something more important than ever before—a valued and trusted friend.
I have shared with him several times this has been one of the most enjoyable parts of winning the election—watching our relationship move beyond employer-employee into a higher plane of friend, confidant and prayer partner.

I am saddened by his retirement as Marion County will prove to be the loser in the end. But I know his departure has been well-earned. Enjoy your free time my friend. Spend more time with the grandchildren and working in Sheri’s famous garden because the seeds of goodwill you have planted in our communities and in the lives around you will be bringing forth a fruitful harvest for generations to come.