The first time I met Dean Walker, he was unpacking lacrosse equipment from the trunk of his car. I noticed his broad smile, his silver hair and beard. I felt his firm handshake.
Dean is a high school girls lacrosse coach. When I saw him that Sunday afternoon three years ago in Louisville, Kentucky, he was organizing a scrimmage for some local girls. One of them was his daughter, Savannah.
Other than that she was Dean’s daughter and a good lacrosse player, I didn’t know much about Savannah. I met her briefly that day. She was pretty, dark-haired and so very polite.
I was coaching a women’s college lacrosse team at the time and recruiting Savannah and a couple of other girls from the area. Dean told me Savannah had her heart set on the University of Louisville.
I had no idea then who Savannah would become or how she would be remembered. But I thought quite a bit about Dean and Savannah this week. A Facebook post by one of my former players, who knew Savannah from high school, led me to their story.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but think about something that seemed, at least on the surface, completely unrelated — a fight at Park City Diner.
In an editorial last week, we lamented the absence of a peacemaker to restore order in the diner after a fight broke out at 2:30 a.m. March 18. In a one-minute video, which has been viewed more than 1 million times online, you see violence and mayhem. You see bystanders laughing and cheering. You see no heroes.
About 24 hours after that brawl, we saw a real hero in Louisville — Savannah Walker.
Savannah was at a rap concert with three friends. At 1:20 a.m., someone started shooting. Spectators ran for the exits. Savannah didn’t run. According to eyewitnesses, she began pushing people out of harm’s way. Then she took a single bullet to the chest and fell to the ground.
According to Louisville Courier-Journal, a man stopped to help, ripping off his shirt and using it to stop the bleeding. Savannah took three deep breaths and died. She was 20.
Dean heard about the shooting and rushed to the scene, not knowing Savannah’s condition. He spent the next 3 1/2 hours standing behind yellow police tape, waiting. “The longer you stand, the more you know,” he said.
Dean learned, officially, that his daughter was gone. But as police began searching for the shooter and a motive (they believe it might have been gang related), Dean Walker did something extraordinary, especially in the view of of us who have children.
He didn’t retreat.
He stood up and spoke for his daughter and for the other children in his community. He made the rounds on the local TV news, urging parents to hug their kids. He told people about Savannah, how much she loved the University of Louisville debate team, how she organized the first lacrosse team at her middle school. How “she always put everybody else first.”
Dean told the Courier-Journal that he decided to speak about his daughter’s death to urge other residents to unite to fight the city’s pervasive violence.
Dean didn’t make any political statements. He never blamed anyone. He simply spoke softly about his daughter, and about other people’s sons and daughters, in the hope of sparing other parents the loss that he must now endure. It was easy to see why Savannah put everybody else first.
There’s something you don’t know about Dean. His wife died of pancreatic cancer a month ago.
And again, as I’m watching this, I thought of the diner fight. Why? Perhaps because of the jarring contrast, the juxtaposition of selfish, reckless, attention-seeking behavior against the quiet courage of Savannah and Dean Walker.
Then I thought of a couple of other fights, also caught on video, that we mentioned in the editorial — a group of teenagers fighting among themselves in the middle of the afternoon in a subway station in Philadelphia. The same day, an ugly fight among multiple players on the ice at a high school hockey game, where parents also got involved.
Last week, we asked for heroes and peacemakers. We found two. They just happened to live in Louisville.
I don’t know Dean Walker well. Nor did I know Savannah very well. I know them better now, and I’m thankful for that. They’ve taught me quite a bit.
There are indeed heroes among us. Sometimes, you don’t recognize them right away. Sometimes, they leave us too soon.