Former Georgia cotton magnate, Henry Walker, served community

Henry Walker III was a star college athlete as a young man, but came home to run one of Georgia’s last locally owned cotton mills, where he was very successful.
Henry Walker III was a star college athlete as a young man, but came home to run one of Georgia’s last locally owned cotton mills, where he was very successful.

In the summer of 1948 Henry Walker passed up his final year of football eligibility at Clemson to begin management-training at Rushton Mill in his hometown of Griffin.

It couldn’t have been an easy choice considering Walker’s astonishing amateur sports career. As a left end and linebacker he played at the University of South Carolina in 1943, then 1944-45 at the University of Virginia, where he was All-America both years. Then he played 1946-47 at Clemson. Along the way he also played baseball at Virginia and was Clemson’s best swimmer (50-and 100-yard free style) and tennis player.

Clemson’s legendary head coach and Athletics Director Frank Howard even sent a letter to Walker’s boss at Rushton. “Now, getting down to brass tacks,” Howard wrote, “I want to ask you if it will be possible for you to see that Henry gets a leave of absence from his job next September, October and November.

“ … He could help us considerably with our next year’s team,” Howard continued, “[and] I believe could get quite a bit of publicity for himself. This publicity would also make him a more valuable man to your organization.”

Walker had already declined an offer from the NFL’s Washington Redskins, who wanted him as a target for famed quarterback “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh, and now he was turning down the famously persuasive Howard. It’s anyone’s guess whether he regretted either decision.

But the coach concluded in a subsequent letter to Walker that, “to tell you the truth, I believe you are doing the right thing.”

Howard was prescient. Walker stayed two years at Rushton, which was then purchased by Dundee Mills, also in Griffin, and there he remained for 45 years. When he retired in 1995 at age 70, he was president and CEO of Dundee, then the largest employer in the southeast. According to a Jan. 14, 1995, New York Times article Dundee had 4,000 employees and, with sales estimated of $270 million, was the nation’s third-largest towel maker.

“Henry had boundless energy, and I never saw him rattled,” said Roy Bowen, president of the Georgia Association of Manufacturers, a position Walker also held. “I think Henry learned his leadership skills from the various coaches he played for. He led by example. He would prod, encourage, point [employees] in the right direction. But at some point he turned them loose and left it to them to get to the end zone on their own.”

James Henry Walker III, 93, died Dec. 21 at his home in Griffin from complications after a stroke. Except for that 1943-48 duration, he lived in the town his entire life, with close friend Dr. Thomas Hopkins recently calling him, “the finest citizen Spalding County ever produced.” The funeral service at Griffin’s First Baptist Church was Thursday, Dec. 27.

Walker was born May 6, 1925, to Henry Jr., a landowner and farmer, who died during the depression when Henry III was 13. Henry Walker IV pointed out, “My father didn’t have much money [as a teenager], and I really think that community helped raise him. He had a love for that community his whole life. and I think that’s why he came back to Griffin as soon as he graduated from college.”

At Griffin High School he played on four state championship teams in football, track and tennis. He won the Georgia high school 440-yard run, was half of a state doubles tennis championship team and captained the all-state basketball team. He also finished with the best academic record in Griffin High history at that time, beating the mark set by his sister Eleanor 10 years earlier.

“Henry was a genius,” said Walter Jones, possibly the last surviving member of the 22-man ’43 football champs. “He could read a book overnight and knew everything inside it the next morning. Made me mad as hell. I was just glad to get a passing grade.”

After high school Walker enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to the V-12 expedited officer program, which sent him first to The University of South Carolina and then to Virginia. In 1944 the Cavaliers football team went 6-1-2, and Walker made second team All-America. In 1945. after Virginia won its first three games, the Navy put him on an aircraft carrier in Pacific where he stayed well into 1946, though he never saw combat, and still he made third-team All-America.

Returning home and going to Clemson, he took up football again. In the final game of 1946 during a 34-18 victory over Auburn, Walker caught 10 passes for 148 yards.

He earned degrees at both Virginia and Clemson, and in 1948 was named the latter’s most outstanding graduate. He came home and in 1951 he married Rebecca Rodenberry, whose father W. B. Roddenberry (patriarch of the Cairo, Ga., syrup-making Roddenberry Company), became a critical mentor. Rebecca and Henry had three children. Rebecca died in 2001.

“My dad was firm,” said Henry IV, the youngest offspring, “but I wouldn’t call him strict, or even outwardly competitive, though he certainly must’ve been. He was a molder of people but he wouldn’t try to change you. He never pressured me to be any more than what I was.”

Henry IV said his father deeply immersed himself in Dundee Mills, which was, in the words of Roy Bowen, “a fully integrated textile plant.” Dundee brought in cotton by the bales, cleaned it, spun it into yarn and knitted the yarn into towels that were dyed and packaged.

“I would call Henry a people person,” said Hopkins, “because he could relate to all people, from the newest guy in the textile plant and to the biggest CEO in New York.”

Walker retired in 1995 after Springs Industries acquired Dundee for, according to the New York Times, $120 million in cash and stock. This happened in the early years of consolidation among textile companies, when more garment makers and retailers began buying imported products well below U.S. costs.

But Walker stayed busy, serving on local education boards, recreation boards, the Griffin-Spalding Chamber of Commerce and the Boy Scouts while also serving as Sunday School teacher and deacon at First Baptist Griffin. In 1999 the magazine “Textile World” named him among the industry’s “Top 50 Most Influential Leaders of the Century.”

He always maintained his playing physique of 6-0, 190 pounds. He played fast-pitch softball in his young and middle-adult years, and played tennis into his 70s, though he limped more and more on the knee that was crushed while playing for Virginia in 1944.

“Henry was the epitome of a gentleman,” Roy Bowen said. “He was a man who was trusted, respected and he was compassionate. I don’t think his style of leadership is old fashioned. What I think, there just aren’t many leaders anymore like Henry.”

Walker is survived by Ann Whatley Walker, his wife of the last 10 years. He is also survived by his daughters Mary Eleanor Mason (Dennis), Margaret Walker Brown (David), his son James Henry Walker IV (Laine), two grandsons and two granddaughters.