DOC WALKER: The 'stormy petrel' from Ketchikan
By June Allen
May 01, 2002
Oh, yes! Doc Walker was a pioneer pharmacist who arrived in the city in 1913. He worked for Ryus Drug until he opened his own drugstore, located first on Front Street and later on Mission in the Ingersoll Hotel building. Popular Doc Walker was elected in 1930 to serve as Ketchikan's 14th mayor even though he hadn't previously served as a councilman - and went on to prove himself as an effective politician through lengthy and productive service in the Territorial Senate from 1933 to 1945, serving as president of the Senate in 1939. He, however, thought his greatest honor was to serve on the National Board of Pharmacy, the first Alaskan to serve in that position!
With all that he still managed to remain "one of the boys" in his home town. He was a popular, well liked man, a trait that often helps politicians get elected. He knew everyone - as most pharmacists do even today! Druggists were very popular in Alaska's Prohibition years of 1917-1933 because they were the only "legal" source of alcoholic products - mostly by prescription, of course! There are many stories across the entire nation of gentlemen taking a wee drop of "nerve medicine" with their favorite druggist in a back room of a drug store.
In an interview in 1989, the late Bob Ziegler - himself a longtime state senator - described Doc Walker as "a man with piercing eyes, a hook nose, a pock-marked face and thinning sandy hair combed straight back." Maybe it was those piercing eyes that Ziegler remembered when he remarked, "Doc Walker was a great poker player! He played cards regularly with 'the old guard' of Ketchikan oldtimers, all of them dead and gone now. And Doc was remembered in the halls of Juneau as the 'stormy petrel* from Ketchikan!' He was," Ziegler added, "the consummate politician." [*a sea bird that flies regardless of storms I had to look it up]
The all-too-human side was also evident in the many Doc Walker stories. Ziegler told another story about him. It seems Doc and the boys were to go on a hunting trip. All of them were smokers and drinkers and poker players, so they finished a card game at the Elks Club and then went down to their boat, tied up at Ryus Float, to leave for the hunting trip. They decided who would be first at the wheel while the other got some sleep. Doc Walker was elected to skipper first and went to the wheelhouse. The others went to sleep. Four hours later when the next man came up to take his turn, he discovered that Doc was still at the wheel - but also still at Ryus Float!
Retired pharmacist Johnny Stenford was a freshman in high school when he first went to work at Doc Walker's drugstore where he answered the phone, typed up prescription labels and learned how to mix compounds and fill capsules. He remembers his mentor fondly. He recalls the One Cent Sales at Walker Drugstore. Business would be brisk, he said, but politician Doc Walker, often with Ketchikan Mayor Harry McCain and often other cronies would be arguing politics and customers couldn't get to the store's cash register to pay for their purchases!
Johnny often did double duty for his boss by sleeping over in a basement room at Doc Walker's house to keep an eye on Mrs. Walker, who had a heart condition. She outlived her husband, however. In the spring of 1949, Doc Walker fell asleep in bed with a lighted cigarette in that same basement room and was asphyxiated. He is buried at Bayview Cemetery.
In 1989 I wrote a story about Doc Walker and the lovely bungalow he built at the corner of Pine and Bawden. A few weeks later I received a letter from the Walker's daughter, Florence (Walker) O'Shea of Anchorage. She wrote: "I well remember trudging up the hill as a three-year-old with my mother and father and brother Bill - pushed in his carriage - to watch our future home going up. I'll always remember the many happy years the four of us lived there until Dad's death in 1949."
From 1974 until just last year, the Doc Walker house was owned by Francis (Fran) Broderick. He and his wife Gwen became the seventh owners. Both of them treasured their house, so little changed from what it was when built in 1920. Broderick's main complaint was that it had been rented to "hippies" before they bought it and some of the rooms were painted black! He and Gwen made minor repairs and replacements when they could.
The house has beautiful wood paneling, built-ins and trim. But when they moved in, three of the interior doors had been kicked in. Fran said that when the Lutheran Church tore down its old parsonage, he was able to find door replacements from the same period. At one time Doc Walker's son Bob, who had been a test pilot in World War II, traveled up from Seattle to visit his old home. Fran said Bob looked at the light fixture in the dining room and said, "That's not the chandelier we had when I was a boy." So Fran scrounged until he found one that matched Bob's description in a Water Street house that was being remodeled.
After Gwen died in 1988, Fran concentrated on the gardens, creating bigger and better ones each year. He enjoyed greeting tourists from where he worked in his flower beds. He treated them to an informal tour of the house and garden and had them sign his guest book, no charge, just being neighborly. Some summers he hosted 300 or more visitors who signed his book. You may remember Fran yourself.
So when you drive or walk by Doc Walker's historic home, the house with the little brass plaque, think of Doc Walker and what Ketchikan must have been like back in the first half of the century. People are only "dead and gone" when we forget about them.
Digital photo by Gigi Pilcher. Photo session courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. George Miller, current owners of the home.