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Former commissioner Jack Walker dies at 73

Jack Walker, a Jackson County commissioner for 16 years, died just before midnight on Friday at his home in Phoenix. He was 73.

"He was just getting weaker as it was coming time to go," said his widow, Andrea Walker, 69. "He spoke in kind of a whisper this last month. ... It's been a process getting here. He fought a good fight."

Walker battled health problems for several years, including three surgeries related to Crohn's disease, she said.

In recent years he was diagnosed with diabetes, fought to recover from a liver transplant in 2008 and had a six-way heart bypass operation in 2011, Andrea Walker said.

"He started letting go maybe two months ago. He probably knew he wasn't ever going to get better," she said. "I don't know how much more I could cry without my eyes falling out. He was a good man and he will be missed."

The couple were married for 43 years, she said.

Walker died while lying in bed in the living room of his Phoenix home at about 11:45 p.m., Andrea Walker said.

"Don't ask me what, but something woke me up; all of a sudden, I was up. I hadn't been asleep for long," she said. "I went out in the living room and I looked at Jack, he was still very warm, but he wasn't breathing. He had passed."

Walker's son Mike, one of five boys the couple raised, also was present, she said.

Between the time Walker checked into Providence Medford Medical Center on Wednesday to the time of his death, about 100 friends and family members visited him, Andrea Walker said.

"There were a lot of people who knew Jack and wanted to see him before he passed," she said. "I loved his energy, all his innovative ideas, whether I liked them or not. I think he had such a strong will. He was a little stubborn at times, but he had a strong will."

Walker's niece, Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker, said "he had been in a lot of pain for a long time, but most people wouldn't have known it because he was very strong and very resilient."

"He was a loving, caring, compassionate man," Chris Walker said. "Whether you agreed with his positions, he always spoke from his heart, and you had to respect him for that."

A fiscally conservative Republican, Walker's political career ended in 2010 when he was unseated in the primary by Commissioner Don Skundrick.

"Jack was very classy about that ... he called and congratulated me, and it was genuine," Skundrick said. "The one thing about Jack is that he was always true to his philosophy: if you didn't agree with him, that was fine, he wasn't going to change — that was him."

During his tenure as commissioner, Walker was instrumental in helping the county weather tough economic times, pushing to build up reserves as federal timber payments disappeared. But his my-way-or-the-highway approach tended to alienate some people along the way.

"There wasn't anything wishy-washy about Jack Walker," Skundrick said. "Jack was Jack, you knew exactly who he was and where he stood, and, ya know, that's not always the case in politics."

Walker took over and owned his father's wrecking yard and auto repair business in Talent before selling the property and retiring in 1991. Following his retirement, he became bored and needed something to put his time and energy into, so he turned to public service, Andrea Walker said.

"He loved that job; that was his passion. When he got involved in that, he learned about every department. He learned about everything that was going on. He passionately loved it, he really did," Andrea Walker said. "After the liver transplant, he ran for office again, but he didn't get elected. That was a little blow."

Southern Oregon Speedway owner John Skinner said Walker was instrumental in the development of the race track there.

"He and I were friends, and we talked for years about building a race track. He was very instrumental in the development, he's really the one who got me going on it," Walker said. "He was a great guy, we had a mutual interest in racing, and we got along great."

Walker was a "really good" race car driver, Skinner said. "He drove back in like the '60s and '70s ... him and his brother, they always drove Buicks."

Andrea Walker said it was her husband's involvement in developing the race track that led him to run for county commissioner.

"I would have never dreamt that would have happened ... it was the last thing on my list, but he loved it," she said. "I think you have to have a thick skin to do that, but he loved it."

Walker's family moved to Talent from Antigo, Wis., when he a young boy, she said.

Walker, the middle child in a family of three boys and two girls, died a week shy of his 74th birthday, Andrea Walker said.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or swheeler@mailtirbune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/swhlr.

Former Jackson County Commissioner Jack Walker, shown at a 2010 campaign event at the Rogue Community College Higher Education Center, died Friday night. He was 73. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell