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Walker gift to send students to the museum.

click to enlarge WALKER FOUNDATION DIRECTOR: Debbie Walker is working to continue the goals of the founders, Willard and Pat Walker.
  • WALKER FOUNDATION DIRECTOR: Debbie Walker is working to continue the goals of the founders, Willard and Pat Walker.

Ever since Alice Walton first began talking about her plan to build Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, she has said that one of her primary objectives was to expose the children of Arkansas to art. When she was a girl, her mother, Helen Walton, had to take her to Tulsa to see art. A section of the new billion-dollar-plus museum is devoted to studio space for classes.

Education has long been a mission of the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation. So it seemed like a "perfect fit," director and former daughter-in-law Debbie Walker said, for the foundation to support the museum with a $10 million donation, over 10 years, to create the Willard and Pat Walker School Visit Program, which will eliminate financial barriers to student visits. The program will pay for buses and bus drivers and materials and lunches and even the substitute teachers schools will need to hire to free up the teachers accompanying the students.

Sandy Edwards, deputy director at Crystal Bridges, said the museum had planned to launch the Walker School Visit Program in late spring, but there's been such demand that it's been moved up to March. Students — any public and private school may apply — will send out two tours of 60 students each at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., before the museum opens to the public. They'll spend time with the permanent collection, lunch and then head to the Experience Art studio. Some 7,200 students should be able to visit in 2012. When the program is fully endowed, it should serve 24,000 children a year.

"We realize the arts are getting the short end of the stick," Debbie Walker said, and called the donation a wonderful opportunity for the foundation to support the Walton gift.

Willard Walker was the manager of Sam Walton's first five and dime in Fayetteville and became a major stockholder in the company. The foundation the Walkers created with their holdings is now worth around $42 million.

In the early years of their giving, the Walkers didn't talk much about their philanthropy. Before she became director, Debbie Walker sometimes learned about a gift for the first time from a newspaper article.

One of the couple's early first gifts was $5 million to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences for the Arkansas Cancer Research Center, Debbie Walker said. Willard Walker wanted to give anonymously to ACRC but Dr. Kent Westbrook, ACRC director from 1984 to 1998, encouraged him to go public. "I told him if he would let us use his name, it would stimulate others," Westbrook said.

Walker found out he liked encouraging others to give — so much so that he started going with Westbrook to call on potential donors, such as Charles Baum, like Walker one of the first Wal-Mart managers. Charles and Nadine Baum previously had given money to UAMS for a garden; Walker and Westbrook decided to call on them to ask for a dollar gift.

On the way to the Baums' house in Fayetteville, Walker asked Westbrook how the garden was doing. "I said, 'Fine, except people go out there to smoke and throw their cigarette butts everywhere.' " Walker grew quiet.

Later, sitting at the Baums' dinette table, Nadine Baum asked Westbrook the same question about the garden. "And I said, 'It's beautiful, but ...' " And then he saw Walker frown and tap one finger on the table three or four times. "... But kids come through there and trash it up," Westbrook finished.

Nadine Baum was a smoker. "Willard was so pleased that he tipped me off without speaking," Westbrook said. "We got our $1 million and we left; he was so proud he'd saved me."

Westbrook and Walker also called on Jim Walton, son of Sam Walton, at Walmart headquarters. (Jim Walton is now CEO of Arvest Bank). "Willard told me Jim's office was going to be a little plain. Jim Walton had two boxes and a door lain across them as a desk," Westbrook said. Walton committed $2 million.

Some days later, at a meal at the Buffalo Grill, Westbrook told Walker that UAMS needed something signed from Walton to give to their accountants. Walker said no, you couldn't ask the Waltons for that. "They're good for it," Walker told Westbrook. Then he promised to give the $2 million if Walton didn't.

"He was a quiet man, with a funny little laugh. He'd grab your arm and hold it," Westbrook said. "It was a real pleasure to them to give; their lives were enriched enormously by what they were able to give." Knowing Walker, Westbrook said, "was one of the high points of my life." He praised the job that Debbie Walker has done as director.

ACRC is not the only institution to benefit from the Walkers' largesse. A foundation gift of $6 million created the Pat and Willard Walker Eye Research Center in the Jones Eye Institute. The center was dedicated shortly after Willard Walker's death in 2003. Arkansas Children's Hospital received a $2 million pledge this year toward the west wing addition to the hospital.

Pat Walker is still active in the foundation, reviewing grants with her son, Johnny Mike. She is a huge Razorbacks fan; if you watched the basketball game last week you saw her courtside in her red suit, a gift from Debbie Walker. The Razorbacks are a fan of Pat Walker as well; the foundation recently announced a pledge of $2.5 million toward the U of A's new football operations center.

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