Sitting in my home office, the mail was piling up on my desk, up to bottom of my monitor screen, as usual. Catching up on the mail is always a task that loves my procrastination, but tonight, I was determined to get through the growing pile on my desk. I was shocked and very deeply saddened when I opened my high school alumni mailing to find out that my classmate and good friend, LTC James J. Walton was killed in action in Kandahar City, Afghanistan on June 21, 2008.
Jim was one of my good friends at St. John’s College High School in Washington, DC, a private, all-boys Catholic, military high school. We met during our freshman year in August of 1982 and we couldn’t be more of opposites. Jim was as sharp a cadet at St. John’s, easily the most self-confident member of our class and the freshman with the most military bearing and pride. I was the cadet that struggled with all things military. Somehow, we managed to become friends.
Jim taught me how to shine my brass, “spit” shine my shoes, and finally, when that didn’t work, taught me the lesson of getting a pair of patent leather “inspection” shoes that I would keep in my locker and wear only to pass the daily morning inspection. He taught me how to properly salute and chided me to learn my cadet knowledge. Jim was destined to be our class leader and future Regimental Commander. I recall that he wanted to be Cadet Colonel so bad, not for the rank itself, but rather to be in the best position to help and mentor fellow students in the way of being military.
Jim and I both had a common interest in music, he was in the Cadet Chorus and I was in the Concert Band/Wind Ensemble and the Regimental Band. We used to hang out in the chorus hall, do homework, talk about the things we wanted to do with our lives. Only Jim knew exactly what he wanted to do: go to West Point and serve his country in the Army. Jim loved his time in the choir; he became the student director of the choir our senior year.
When we were seniors, Jim was named Regimental Commander, with the rank of Cadet Colonel. I fondly recall the evening of our Commissioning Ceremony as cadet officers, Jim was beaming with pride and honor to have earned the leadership position of our entire regiment. I was proud to be commissioned a second lieutenant in the Regimental Band. It was due to Jim’s mentoring of my feeble military skills that I was able to achieve that level of rank. He got me through the system.
The Regimental Band was the only battalion in the regiment that didn’t have a sergeant major. I volunteered to assume that position for the Regimental Band, taking a voluntary demotion from lieutenant to sergeant major. I did it because I believed it was an opportunity to be special; there were only 4 sergeant majors in the entire regiment, while there were dozens of ordinary lieutenants. It also allowed me to be glued to the hip of my best friend in high school, John Shaw, who was our battalion commander, making my final year at St. John’s a military breeze.
When word moved up the chain that I took a demotion, Jim found me and said “DeCesare, only you would take a demotion to try to make yourself look good.” We both got a good laugh out of that one. One day, I volunteered to be Officer of the Day, an assignment that took the serving cadet out of classes for the day to be an aide to the military instructors and school administrators. When I went to the Military Office to report for duty, Jim laughed at me, asking me if I had a test today and needed to skip class. Even though we were friends, Jim was pretty relentless on us in morning officer’s inspection. He would demand that we lead by example and that started with appearance and attitude. He expected the officers of the regiment to lead with dignity, honor, and sense of duty.
When graduation week came, we all knew that we would be moving on to our next phase in life. The day before graduation, we took our class photo at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC. The Cadet Colonel is the centerpiece of the photo, standing in the middle of the front row with Brother John Herron, our school president. It had rained that morning and we were unsure if we were able to take the picture, but the rain broke and we gathered as a class on the marble steps of the Shrine to take one last photo. It would be the second to last day we would all be together as classmates.
On graduation day, we re-assembled at the Shrine to go through graduation ceremony. It was the last time that we would all wear the uniform at St. John’s. Jim, like so many other occasions, led the officers of the Class of 1985 into the ceremony, with his perfect military demeanor, white sash, chest full of medals and ribbons, 3 diamonds signifying the rank of Cadet Colonel on his shoulders.
After the ceremony, we were milling outside the Shrine, taking pictures with family, friends, and classmates. I remember Jim and I hugged, glad that we made it through, sad that our days at St. John’s were coming to an end. I knew Jim was going on to bigger and better things at West Point, while I was off to a vastly different life at Virginia Tech with two of our other classmates. That would be the last time I would see Jim Walton.
While my initial memories of Jim have always been about his impressive military manner, my most fond, treasured, and lasting memories of Jim had very little to do with the military. My memories were of his strength of character, kindness, dedication, compassion, honesty, and loyalty to his friends and family. Jim loved helping people, especially his friends. He was selfless in that regard. I loved that we shared a like of music, the playfulness of the Senior right to cut in the lunch line and sit at the Senior Table. We endured schoolwork, Brother Albert’s monotonous typing class, bonded for life with our classmates, and loved our school, it’s sense of integrity, honor and duty, and all it represented.
People may think that the world will be a lesser place without Jim Walton, but I believe otherwise. I believe that the world is infintely a better place because of Jim Walton. As I look at that picture of our class, the Class of 1985 of St. John’s College High School, I see front and center, where he belonged, the indelible image of Cadet Colonel Jim Walton. I also see the image of Jim Walton my mentor, my leader, but most of all, my friend.