Past to Present

 

Admissions' Denise Walden discovers an illustrious ancestor among Colby alumni

By Gerry Boyle '78 
Photography by Fred field
 

When Denise Walden, associate director of admissions and multicultural enrollment, decided to leave her position at the University of Denver to move closer to family back east, she had no idea just how close to family she was about to come.

Walden, who grew up in Virginia, was familiar with Colby and its academic reputation but had no connection to the College. "I was ready for a new adventure," she said. "Let's see what Maine is all about."

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Photo by Fred Field
She did just that, joining the Colby admissions team in 2003. It was months later that her relatives in Pennsylvania came across a clipping while cleaning out files at home. It was about Walden's great-uncle Hezekiah Walden, and it included a reference to Colby College. The information was passed on to Walden's father, who mentioned it to his daughter at Colby. "I said, 'Okay. How come I've never heard of this person?'"

At her desk in Lunder House, Walden entered the name into the College's alumni database. "He was in there," she said, but the entry was limited to name and class year (1898). Her curiosity piqued, Walden called Pat Burdick, special collections librarian at Miller Library"and hit the jackpot.

Burdick produced a tribute to Walden published in the Alumnus on the occasion of his death, in 1931, and a profile researched and written by students of Professor Mark Tappan (education) just two years ago. It seems that Denise Walden's great-uncle not only was a Colby graduate, but a highly accomplished and respected one. "Hezekiah Walden's death has called forth many expressions of genuine appreciation of his rare worth," the Alumnus reported.

Hezekiah Walden grew up in rural Markham, Va., walking seven miles each way to school each day, the story said. As a boy he worked as a house servant but yearned for more education. He made his way to Washington, D.C., and entered Wayland Academy, where the president, Dr. George M.P. King, was a Colby graduate, Class of 1857.

King took special interest in Walden and urged him to move to Waterville, where he again worked as a house servant, but also entered Coburn Classical Institute in Waterville, with Gov. Abner Colby Coburn as his benefactor. Walden graduated from Coburn Classical in 1894, entered Colby the same year, and graduated four years later"the third African-American to graduate from the College. "His diligence, unfailing courtesy, kindliness of manner and high ideals easily and early won for him the respect and confidence of his associates," wrote classmate Charles Edwin Gurney.

The fresh Colby graduate stayed in the classroom. He taught at a succession of black institutions, including Roger Williams University in Nashville (merged in 1927 with LeMoyne-Owen College), where he was ordained a Baptist minister. Next was another Baptist college, Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. Walden moved from Texas to Kansas City, where he taught high school"and white racists twice dynamited his house.

Bluefield Institute in West Virginia was his next home, followed by West Virginia Normal School, where Walden was president. He ended his career as a high school teacher in Mt. Hope, W. Va.

His children followed in his footsteps, all graduating from college. One, Coburn Walden, earned his medical degree at Howard University.

While all of this was news to Denise Walden, the breadth of her ancestor's accomplishments and his diligence and tenacity were no surprise. Her own upbringing, she said, emphasized education and hard work. "You just keep striving," the modern-day Walden was taught. "You don't let obstacles keep you from trying to realize your goals."