A Conversation with Walter

1. Why did you decide to write Walter’s Way?

I’d told my grandchildren a lot of stories over the years, and they’d always roll their eyes: not that one again! But a couple of years before I turned ninety, I realized I’d never talked to them about growing up during the Depression, when my father couldn’t find a job. I wanted them to understand how somebody like me, who grew up without any money or family connections, could rise through the ranks of a major corporation, raise hundreds of millions of dollars and start his own company. It could only happen here in America, where anything is possible.

I started writing about my life, which brought me to the moment when I was listening to a football game on the radio and heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I was all set to enlist in the army when I found out I had tuberculosis. Instead of going overseas, I spent the next six years in a public sanatorium in upstate New York. I promised myself that eventually I had to go to Normandy to pay tribute to the men who had fought and died there, and that I would include a description of that experience in my book.

As I got further into the project, I realized my experiences in the business world were also an important part of my story. The ideas, beliefs, and attitudes I developed as a corporate executive and entrepreneur can be applied to virtually any situation, no matter where you work or what you do.

That’s how my book took shape.

2. Is there a philosophy that you’ve followed throughout your life?

I grew up in the Catholic Church, and I still go to Mass. My parents raised me to believe that our lives are guided by a higher power or force. What makes life so challenging and exciting is that we never know where our path will take us, whom God will bring into our lives. Writing this book has reinforced my conviction that each of us has a destiny–a special purpose in life to  fulfill.

For example, if Jack Rein, one of my colleagues at Veeco Industries, hadn’t introduced me to his brother-in-law, Dr. George Todd, when I needed surgery, I would never have heard of The Center for Discovery – an extraordinary organization that focuses on the advanced care and treatment of people with significant disabilities. As I became familiar with the Center, I realized that my life’s mission was to shine a light on the true heroes in our midst: the caretakers of the sick and infirm, the impoverished and the dying. I’d never been able to repay the men who cared for me at the sanatorium, and they’d received no recognition for everything they did to help save so many lives there. My association with The Center for Discovery has given me the opportunity to honor and thank the caregivers there and ultimately, all over the world.  Some people might say that’s coincidence. I think of it as divine intervention, which has guided and supported me throughout my life.

3. You were a child of the Depression, and as a young adult, you had to fight your way back from a life-threatening illness. Years later, you almost had to declare bankruptcy because a business associate turned against you. Yet you’re a perpetual optimist with a remarkable sense of humor.

My family was very poor, but so was everyone else in our neighborhood.  I never felt deprived or disadvantaged. I thought I was lucky, because I had wonderful parents and a terrific group of pals.  We spent hours playing stick-ball,  listening to ballgames on the radio, finding all kinds of ways to entertain ourselves. We lived in a very close-knit community, where people looked out for one another. Every Sunday, my parents took my sisters and me to visit my Grandma McCue, who was so generous and patient and quirky. My aunts, uncles and cousins were always there,  as well as Father Jolly, Grandma McCue’s favorite priest. We kids would spend hours outside playing ball and making up games. Then the whole family would sit down to a meal which usually consisted of potatoes, but nobody ever complained, because we were so happy and grateful to be together. Somebody would come up with a great joke or some outlandish tale that he would swear was true. The menu might have been boring, but we were too busy laughing to notice or care.  After dinner, Father Jolly would gather all us kids in a circle and tell us scary stories. Forget about television or video games! Father Jolly’s descriptions and sound effects were so convincing that we we were ready to believe they were real. It didn’t matter how little money we had, we always enjoyed ourselves. My family taught me to appreciate laughter and a good sense of humor.  These priceless gifts helped me defuse a lot of tense business situations.

4. Who were your role models or mentors?

Most important were my mother and father. Their example–how they treated people, their sense of ethics and fairness–was the foundation for everything I believe in. They didn’t express their feelings in words, but my sisters and I knew they loved us and did everything they could to give us a good life. I don’t recall them ever fighting in front of us or using bad language, and that gave us a very strong foundation and sense of security.

Father Jolly was also one of my role models. You just had to spend time with him to know he felt happy and fulfilled in his calling as a priest. He taught me the importance of finding my calling, whatever that might be, so that I could give of myself to other people and enjoy life.

My father and uncles showed me the definition of true compassion after two of my cousins, Edie and Anna, contracted polio when they were young. They lived next door to Grandma McCue, and every Sunday, I’d watch my father and my uncles take turns rubbing Edie and Anna’s limbs to keep their muscles from atrophying. I’ve tried to follow their examples throughout my life. My cousins’ courage was also a source of inspiration for me, especially when I had TB.
Of course,  I admire so many others: people I’ve met, people I haven’t,  some famous and some not.

5. After reading Walter’s Way, I had the feeling that you were born to be a leader, to succeed in sales and marketing. Can you imagine yourself having chosen a different career path?

As teenagers in Ozone Park, New York, my friends and I meted out our own justice. If somebody complained that one of the guys had insulted his sister, we’d hold a mock trial. I was always the judge. People trusted me because they knew I’d be fair and listen to all sides of the story. The punishment had to fit the crime. If I decided that yes, the sister had been insulted, the “accused” would have to go to her house and apologize. I think  those were my first lessons in leadership.

I also learned at an early age what to do to get ahead. My parents took any kind of work, no matter how menial, to make money. When the bank almost foreclosed on our house because my parents couldn’t pay the mortgage, my mother took in boarders, and we kids slept on the porch. What a great lesson that was–instead of giving up, find a creative solution to a seemingly impossible problem.

I’ve always set myself the goal to to be the best at whatever I wanted to accomplish. I  knew where my talents lay. I wasn’t mechanical, and I couldn’t understand the intricacies of engineering. But I was very good with numbers. I knew how to talk to people, how to persuade them to see things from my point of view, and how to close a deal. I started out in accounting and worked my way up into marketing, sales, and acquisitions. Those areas were a perfect fit for my talents.

I’ve always said I never worked a day in my life, because I’ve enjoyed whatever I’ve been involved with. When you find your “calling,” as I mentioned earlier, going to work doesn’t feel like a burden or an obligation.  I’m still working today, raising money on behalf of The Center for Discovery, spreading the word out about what they do, so that people all over the world can benefit from their hands-on research and humanistic methods of working with people who have disabilities and complex medical issues.