Age defying: JABA's hippie CEO

Gordon Walker is usually photographed in a suit, appropriate attire for the CEO of the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, the chairman of the Albemarle School Board, and a grandfather.

He shows up for an interview at JABA in jeans, denim shirt, and wearing an earring.

Walker seems to like defying stereotypes.

For instance, on the School Board, he represents the Samuel Miller District, hotbed of Ivyites who scream at any suggestion they'll be redistricted out of Meriwether Lewis or Murray elementaries.

Walker lives in more laid-back Batesville. "That's a big difference from Ivy," he notes the obvious.

And 30 years ago, what drew a young man to make a career out of helping those getting old?

"I was raised by a grandmother who left a teaching job to come take care of four boys," Walker says, adding, "under 10. I want people in the last years of life to live in comfort and dignity."

Even as a mere whelp himself, Walker, an aide to California's Senator John Tunney in the early 1970s, worked on the Senate Committee on Aging.

By 1981, at the ripe old age of 34, he came to Charlottesville to run JABA. Now, with its four Senior Centers, three apartment complexes and many other services, JABA has helped make the area a magnet for retirees. Walker rejects as myth the suggestion that older people are well-off, and points to black women in rural areas, where one in three live in poverty.

"I view aging as a woman's issue," he says. "They outlive men, have lower incomes, and you don't get Social Security for being a mom."

And he's serious about it, asking a reporter about her (nonexistent) retirement plan. Gulp.

Two retirements loom in Walker's future: his own from the School Board– he decided not to seek a second term– and that of school Superintendent Kevin Castner, who at age 57 will step down to ponder the next stage of his life. That means Walker has to find a new superintendent before both he and Castner leave in December.

Walker says Albemarle's search will be "significantly" different from Charlottesville's, which came under attack this spring for relying too heavily on a head-hunting firm. "We'll seek input from a variety of stakeholders: teachers, parents...We don't need a special committee."

He's encouraged by preliminary discussions with the Virginia School Boards Association. "Their belief is that because Albemarle is in such good shape, there will be a significant number of qualified applicants," Walker says. He expects to advertise in August and name Castner's successor by November 1.

Walker, who had a daughter in the school system and whose wife is a teacher, ran for the county School Board with two goals. One was increasing teacher pay– 20 percent over the past two years. The other was improving the quality of food– particularly to "get the crap out of the vending machines."

The latter was the more controversial decision and did not necessarily increase his popularity among soda-swilling, Twinkie-popping students. "It was more of a struggle than I thought," he recalls, "but I feel good about it."

And Walker's own retirement plans? "In my head, how to design a retirement community for old hippies," he replies.

He could be on to something.

Age: 58

Why here? Vermont-like mountains without the cold

What's worst about living here? Poorly planned growth

Favorite hangout? Hangout? What does that mean? Hanging on is hard enough.

Most overrated virtue? "Silence is golden." Speaking out is healthy.

People would be surprised to know: I was an altar boy.

What would you change about yourself? I'd be better able to remember names.

Proudest accomplishment? A 2:32 Boston Marathon

People find most annoying about you: Being late

Whom do you admire? Bobby Kennedy

Favorite book? Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer

Subject that causes you to rant? School lunch menus

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Buying a cottage in Vermont

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Bush being elected– twice!

What do you drive? A 10-year-old Lexus

In your car CD player right now: Bob Marley– Exodus

Next journey? Vermont

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Feeding Ex-lax to my ninth-grade music teacher's dog

Regret: Not getting to know my parents better

Favorite comfort food: Homemade chocolate chip cookies

Always in your refrigerator: Soy milk, ripe olives, tofu

Must-see TV: West Wing

Favorite cartoon: South Park

Describe a perfect day. A good run in the a.m., a day at the beach, dinner out, and dancing with my wife

Walter Mitty fantasy: Being a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox

Who'd play you in the movie? Tim Robbins

Most embarrassing moment? Losing my bathing suit while surfing in San Diego

Best advice you ever got? Always have your reach exceed your grasp.

Favorite bumper sticker? Question authority.

Gordon Walker