An Interview With Lee Walker

Lee Walker has lived in Hyde Park for the last 20 years, a place that resonates with the high value he puts on family, friends, and community.  His professional and public life is a fascinating, inspiring tale not just in the breadth of his endeavors but in the way he has created or seized the opportunities that have led to a host of accomplishments.  Among the awards and recognition he has earned are Austin Chamber of Commerce Austinite of the Year (1998), Texas Nature Conservancy Lifetime Achievement (2004), and with his wife Jennifer Vickers, Association of Fundraising Professionals Outstanding Philanthropists (2006).

ELW color casual headshot

Pecan Press (PP): You lived in quite a few places before you moved to Austin.  Where did you grow up?  

Lee Walker (LW): I was born in Kansas; my dad came from a line of independent farmers in Catholic enclaves with a strong sense of morality.  I came to Texas at age 10 when he started working in an oil refinery in Three Rivers.

I did experience Austin rather early on, though.  Like many other kids in Texas, I participated in academic and athletic competitions sponsored by the University Interscholastic League.  If you were good and won in your district, you got to go to the regionals, and if you won there, you came to Austin to compete in state finals.  I loved those trips.  Austin was quite different from my hot, dusty hometown, and represented to me the epicenter of achievement.  It made an imprint in my mind that it was a place I would come to live someday.

PP: You’ve been engaged in a wide range of professions requiring constant retooling and learning.  Did this love of learning start when you were young?

LW: Yes.  When I was 7, I discovered a set of the Encyclopedia Americana in my basement.  I was constantly hiding out there reading it.  As a result, I got to know a lot of stuff early, and that triggered interest in a lot of other things.

PP: Why did you choose Texas A&M for your undergraduate work?    

LW: With no money for college, I went right to work the summer after high school as a roustabout in the oil industry.  One morning while we were pulling a well, a car drives up with the Shelby Metcalf in it.  This legendary Texas basketball coach invites me to attend A&M on a full basketball scholarship.  I leapt at this opportunity, but was surprised because I wasn’t that great a player.  Although being 6’9”, I did have my height going for me.  For three years, I sat on the bench, pretty much a nobody.  But just as the season got underway in my senior year, I started to play really well and was named Honorable Mention All Southwest Conference Team as A&M won second place in the conference.

PP: You majored in physics and Russian.  Those are challenging subjects.  Tell us a bit about why you chose those majors and if they had an effect on your life.

LW: I chose physics because I thought it was the hardest course of study to take, and also the most fundamental thing you could study—it’s about how things work.  I selected Russian because I needed a scientific language to go along with physics.  Physics plus Russian plus my final success in basketball changed everything in my life and opened up the world to me.  I was awarded a NASA fellowship for being a top national physics student.  That three-year program was a fast track to a PhD in nuclear physics.  ​

PP: At some point you decided to get an MBA at Harvard?  Where did the interest in business come from?  

LW: I had zero interest in business, probably even a negative view of it.  On the other hand, physics wasn’t enough for me.  The nature of a physics career requires you to keep specializing—and that was not interesting to me.  I met someone who had just graduated from Harvard Business School and told me he was already running a business for DuPont.  That sounded like something worth trying.

PP: Your initial job after Harvard was at Union Carbide.  There’s quite a story about your time there, right?

LW: Yes.  I quit after one year out of a sense of moral outrage.  My boss took me out for a drink; he’s celebratory because he felt I was headed for the top.  Then he became sad, in tears because he wouldn’t be going there with me because he was Jewish.  No Jew could get to the top of Union Carbide at that time.  So I just quit, with no job in the offing.

PP: Wow, that was a courageous and daring thing to do.  What were the repercussions?  

LW: That move turned out to be crucial for my entrepreneurial career.  A few days later, the phone rings and it’s Union Carbide, with a job proposition for me that would not involve being part of their company.  It had a 20 – 30% investment in an oceanographic company that was failing and immediately needed a chief financial officer to save it.  They said the job could be mine despite my lack of experience.  I took the challenge.  It turned out it was not so difficult to turn the company around.  After 2 years there, I moved on to a series of other successful businesses ventures.

PP: What was so engaging to you about being an entrepreneur?

LW: Several things.  I loved the sense of not working for anyone else, being independent—probably something I valued from my family’s roots in a farming community.  Also I liked the fact that imagination is at the core of entrepreneurship.

PP: So at what point did you finally move to Austin?

LW: In 1978 I fulfilled my early dream of moving here.  At first it was a period of early semi-retirement.  However, by 1986, a friend of mine introduced me to Michael Dell, who as a young man had just started his PC business.  With Michael was the man who I thought was going to be the first president of his company, which was then called PCs Limited.  I’m not sure what happened but several days later Michael offered me that job.  At first I said no, but upon more reflection became worried that his company was going to fail.  So I changed my mind, becoming the first president of Dell Computer.  Over the next few years we were able to break out of the pack to create the beginnings of a huge company.  In less than 4 years though, I become very ill with meningitis and had to stop.

PP: That’s a serious illness.  Did that change things for you?

LW: Very much so.  Not only did it take substantial time to recover, it’s like my master switch was flipped.  Living in an expensive home and driving a fancy car had been important to me, but now I moved to a houseboat on Lake Travis and drove a pickup truck.  More important, I changed the setting of where I applied my values and skills, moving from running businesses to teaching university students.

PP: Was one of those changes moving to Hyde Park?  

LW: Yes, that was part of a flow of change.  Moving here was like coming home.  Like many who live here, when Jen, my wife, and I first drove through, there was an instant click, a sense of connection to others.  At bottom for me, the most important things are family and friends.  Hyde Park taps that universal desire for connection.

It turned out to be a fantastic place for us to raise our daughters Gabriella and Giulia.  It’s been idyllic having Lee Elementary close by as a neighborhood school and being able to walk to restaurants and coffee shops and bike from home down Avenue H to Tom Green to the classes I teach at UT.  And Austin has been a wonderful place as well for my two older daughters Amanda and Suzanna, and my grandchildren Sam and Jasmine.

PP: In the time since your illness you have striven to serve—students through teaching and citizens of Austin as chair of the board of Cap Metro.  Let’s start with the latter.  What prompted you to take that on?  

LW: In 1996, Laylan Copelin at the Statesman was writing about scandal after scandal at Cap Metro.  The Legislature ended up firing the entire board, creating a new one of five elected members and two citizens at large.  My thought was that if Austin was to be a great city, it had to have great transportation.  I was also thinking it would be misery to take this job on, and I hesitated to the very last minute to apply.  Shortly after doing so, though, I became chair of the board for 11 years up to 2008.

PP: After serving as the board chair, you submitted a resignation letter in which you wrote, “I see a growing understanding that transit is about land use and how we shape a different future from business as usual.”  Can you elaborate on that?

LW:  To me, we had to envision the future, do a virtual flyover over central Texas, 20 or 30 years hence.  It was not hard to imagine the growth.  You could see the choking traffic coming.  Having a university, capitol, and emerging downtown all in close proximity made Austin unique, and linking those up by rail to my mind would have helped bring badly needed transit to Austin.  In 2000, though, the light rail proposal failed to pass, losing by an average of just one vote per precinct.  To this day I still regret that I was not able to provide the level of leadership needed to accomplish passage.  Its passage would have had a dramatic impact on traffic and land use and would have contributed to Austin’s becoming a grown-up modern city.  We did however pass the commuter rail in 2004 by a substantial margin.

PP:  Without specific training and experience, how did the path to teaching open up for you.

LW: That’s another one of those stories.  When I recovered from meningitis, I was invited to substitute teach a summer class in the graduate business school at UT.  As it turned out, I was voted best teacher in the business school for that summer and was invited back, and the awards and teaching continued.  A few years later, I met Ronnie Earle, the longtime district attorney in Austin, who told me his dream was to teach a course on community in Plan II, the liberal arts honors program at UT.  I offered to help him with that, suggesting we approach UT to co-teach such a course.  And so it happened.  Eventually Ronnie had to bow out, and I remained and reshaped the course, which I’ve continue to teach to the present as a Senior Research Fellow.

PP: Can you tell us a bit about that course?

LW: It’s called Pathways to Civic Engagement, and it’s all about using the imagination to create solutions, opening up the lens through which we see possibilities for improving the civic community.  One of those lenses is entrepreneurship.  For example, civic engagement can happen when a group of people says it would like to have new urbanism up the street at the Triangle in lieu of a sea of asphalt and big box stores.  Or create unique partnerships to save Westcave Preserve where I chaired for over 30 years.  Or join with other neighbors to keep garbage pickup in our alleys so as to preserve our alleys.  Or create a political movement to Save Our Springs.  In my class, I can bring to bear all my experiences in helping my students explore solutions.  My focus is on issues like health care, education, and the way we design our places, anything that has social justice implications.

PP: You’re now 72 and given your impressive list of accomplishments, I can’t imagine you without goals for the future.

LW:  For the next 20 years plus I hope to continue to be biking along Avenue H and Tom Green, on my way to and from teaching my class at UT.