Home Lifestyle A longtime English professor, Walker inspired students through her faith and service

A longtime English professor, Walker inspired students through her faith and service

Rachel Walker, who taught at Wingate University for more than 40 years, recently passed away. Contributed photos

UNIONVILLE — “If there is anybody at Wingate who epitomized faith, knowledge and service, it was Rachel Walker,” says Unionville Lions Club President David Yarborough.

A former student who in recent years became part of the civic club under her mentorship, Yarborough offered his words of praise among a chorus of similar testimonies given in memory of Walker, a Wingate faculty emerita who passed away Oct. 26.

Walker was a native of Gaston County who set her sights on teaching as a fifth-grader and married her high school sweetheart at age 18. She taught English at Wingate from 1967 to 2008 and was known for her commitment to excellence, the personal relationships she built with students and, perhaps most importantly, for how she encouraged those around her in their faith and service.

“There are certain teachers that make a difference in your life,” Yarborough says. “Her difference was that she was always an encourager. She made you want to do more.”

Although they lost touch after Yarborough graduated in 1992, years later it was Walker who prodded him to join the Unionville Lions Club, which she and her husband, Jim, had been serving for years. Yarborough says the Walkers were heavily involved in Camp Dogwood, a North Carolina Lions summer camp for visually impaired adults. They set up the $800 Jim and Rachel Walker Scholarship, which is awarded every year to a Piedmont High School student in the Leo Club to help pay for college. And they were very involved in the Lions Club’s hugely successful annual Unionville Fourth of July celebration.

Yarborough was just getting his feet wet in the club as Walker’s declining health forced her to relinquish some roles, but he says her work as a Lion and former president of the Unionville club led to the organization’s winning numerous awards.

“She was feisty,” he says. “If she wanted to go after something, she’d go after it.”

The Lions Club was not Walker’s only avenue of service. A former church youth leader, Walker started a Vacation Bible School for special needs children, volunteered for Hospice for several years and at one time produced a newsletter for the Union Baptist Association. Her example of service and her kind words inspired students for her entire 41-year career at Wingate.

“She led by example, radiating grace and pure joy,” says Alyson Jordan, who earned her degree in communication in 2007, just a year before Walker retired. “She believed in celebrating the beauty and complexities of life. It’s been almost 20 years, and I can still remember the life lessons she taught me. I share some of those with my own students now.”

“Rachel Walker was one of the toughest professors I ever had, but she made grammar, and especially American literature, come alive,” says Nathaniel Sullivan, who graduated from Wingate in 1979 with a degree in human services. “Her love for her students was unparalleled, and her love for life contagious.”

Willmarie Davila Austin, who earned her degree in communication in 2007, says her English professor not only encouraged her love of learning but saw in her a passion for nonprofit work even before she recognized that as her calling.

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“I’m from Puerto Rico, and so I was on campus a lot since I couldn’t go home,” Austin says. “She was very nurturing, and she even came to my graduation party. She really cared for her students.”

When Austin expressed uncertainty about where she was headed next, Walker told her she would be happy anywhere in the world if she were in a role where she was serving others.

“My professor just knew that I would be really successful in the nonprofit world,” says Austin, volunteer and community liaison for Habitat for Humanity in Cabarrus County. “And I just love the work that I do.

“She gave me a book of prayers for graduation. And when my daughter was born in 2009, she sent a package with gifts for her.”

Maurice Thomas, a fellow faculty emeritus, had been teaching at Wingate just a year when Walker was hired.

“We were works in progress under the watchful eyes of Frances Vick, our department chair,” Thomas says. “We shared offices in what was then McIntyre Gymnasium that had been turned into offices and PE classes.”

He says sharing good and tedious times at Wingate led them to laugh a great deal and to find joy in teaching their students.

“I have often wondered why some people become teachers when they really don’t like young people,” Thomas says. “Rachel was the opposite. She was a good teacher who loved her students, and they loved her. They trusted and respected her and turned to her often for emotional support. Rachel lived and was sustained by her faith. What a friend she had in Jesus and what a friend she was to all of us. She will be remembered.”

Those close to her say Walker’s passion for encouraging others never waned, even as she dealt with multiple health issues. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1985, Walker was a 30-year survivor of melanoma, battled two pulmonary diseases, suffered acute kidney failure in 2013 and had an ischemic stroke in 2016.

Still, she testified of her faith, writing just last December: “God has been good to me! I have learned to trust Him because I know He wants to give me good gifts. Some of these gifts are my family, my friends, my students, my church family, my happy heart, my joy, but most of all the presence of the Holy Spirit and the gift of eternal life. When I am dealing with my health issues, my prayer always is, ‘God, help me. I know you will.’”

The Walker family has requested that memorials be made to Wingate University or to First Baptist Church of Indian Trail.

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