Remembering Joy Walker

Beloved and legendary former Staples High School English teacher Joy Walker died in her sleep on June 6. She was 89.

A descendant of Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler, she grew up in a South Compo Road home that had been in her family since the 1700s. She graduated from Staples High School (Class of 1940) and Bennington College, where she majored in English and minored in modern dance. She received her master’s in education from the University of Bridgeport, and taught at Staples for over 30 years.

Her interests included literary arts, gardening, golf, tennis, fishing, dancing, bird watching, collecting wildflowers, playing Charades, winning at Scrabble and completing New York Times crossword puzzles. She inspired her 6 grandchildren with her vivid imagination, and great joy for life.

Joy’s son Jon sends along these thoughts:

Joy was a very well-rounded Stapleite. Her range of interests would be impossible today: Inklings, French Club, Art Club, basketball, hockey, tennis, cheerleading, junior play, senior play, yearbook editor. Plus, she set the school record for the 110-yard high hurdles.

The young and vivacious Joy Walker.

Joy dated Pete Wassell for several years. He was killed in World War II, along with his brothers Harry and Bud. (Joy’s sister Betsy married the surviving Wassell brother, George).

Joy also dated Alan Senie, who became a noted Westport attorney. The initials “JS & AS” — with a heart — were carved on a wall of the Compo bathhouses. They remained there until the day the wooden structure was demolished.

Martha Graham was her instructor during summer dance sessions at Bennington. Graham called her “more of an acrobat and a great leaper than a true modern dancer.”

Joy and Betsy would get up at 6 a.m. on “Ladies Day” at Longshore, to be the first on the course. They played barefoot, the better to muck out balls when the 12th hole tide was low. She had a natural swing, and shot regularly in the 80s.

She was a daredevil. When I told her I jumped off the cliff at Devil’s Den, she described how she would jump into the Saugatuck from the top of the Merritt Parkway bridge trestle.

Joy Walker (left) loved playing Charades. According to her son Jon, games were cutthroat. Every title was obscure, and had to be answered exactly correctly. Fellow English teacher Dick Leonard (red shirt) is playing too.

A political activist, Joy was instrumental in establishing Project Concern, which brought Bridgeport students to Westport.

In 1970, when I was a freshman at the University of North Carolina, I bumped into Joy on the Washington, DC mall during a Vietnam War protest. There were a million people — and neither of us knew the other would be there.

Joy felt very strongly that Shakespeare meant for Hamlet to be just 18 or 19 years old. She said that famous lines like “To be or not to be” read much differently — and, she believed, more poignantly — when you think of Hamlet as the age of a high school senior.

I’m in Mom’s camp on this one. Like her, I find nothing more inspiring than to see kids of high school age finding their strengths and true identities on high school playing fields and stages.

(A celebration of Joy’s life will be held Saturday, August 18 (11 a.m.) at the Christ Church in Roxbury, Conn. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Philip Schuyler Journalism Award, c/o Staples Tuition Grants, PO Box 5159, Westport, CT 06881; click here to contribute online. To place an online condolence, click here.)

A recent shot of Joy Walker.

26 responses to “Remembering Joy Walker

  1. What an inspiration! Thank you.

  2. Joy was the reason I chose to go to Bennington College: I wanted that sparkle she had in her eyes. I also remember her father, Mr. Schuyler, who modeled the proper gusto for singing in church. So glad to have read these words about her. Lauriston Thrush Avery

  3. Anne Leonard Hardy

    I LOVE that picture of Joy pointing with gusto at a correct guess! Says it all! Leonards and Walkers played charades every night in Maine as no one had a TV and it was WAY more interesting anyway. Obscure doesn’t begin to describe the titles. Hymns were fair game and if you were visiting either family, you played too! She was a legendary person, in all ways. Kind too. She climbed to the top of a water tower on a dare. As kids and teens and then as her students, we were all fascinated by her free spirit. She was the real deal. I am so glad to have known her.

  4. I never had Joy as my English teacher when I was at Staples in the late 1960s, but her presence was an inspiration all the same.

    Together with Dick Leonard and Frank Weiner, she founded the “Games Club” which met on Friday afternoons, as the week was winding down. The idea was to play simple games with a psychological twist, and it attracted a small but dedicated membership from the entire student body. One I remember in particular, we were each asked to write a letter making an excuse as to why we were going to break a date with friend. After reading them aloud, a boy and a girl were chosen to sit in chairs back to back and asked to improvise a phone conversation to convey the same message. Suddenly the astonishing differences between how we engage in “social” lies in writing and in conversation became dramatically apparent! Then another boy and girl were asked to improvise the same scene as a confrontation in person at the girl’s home. Suddenly, Joy inserted herself into the vignette in the persona of the girl’s mother! It was impossible to continue the pretense as she glared at the poor lad!

    Lesson learned!

    Scott E. Brodie, Staples ’70

  5. Don Willmott

    Her modern poetry class was a revelation. How vividly I recall the day she wheeled out the record player to play us a recording of T.S. Eliot reading “The Waste Land.”

  6. I had Mrs. Walker for Senior English and she was bar none my favorite teacher – she made writing fun, always with an encouraging word. RIP, Mrs. Walker.

  7. Gerry Kuroghlian

    Maggie and Poppy Schuyler aptly named their first girl “Joy” as she personified the word. When i joined the Staples staff in 1967, she was a vital force in promoting change that would enhance the academic and quality of life for our students. She was a champion of all students especially of those going into the work force.
    When I became her tenant, I was made a part of the Bennet-Walker-Schuyler World, resplendant with tennis, word games, laughter and Turkey Trots. Joy was dedicated to her family, her town and her students. Her legacy lives on in the thousands she touched. She may be teaching the angels a few new dance steps.

  8. Eric Buchroeder

    Within our larger family she was “Mama Joy” and no better Mama and no better person ever lived and always the tom-boy. She and Aunt Betsy were the consummate dynamic sister duo. I never knew the story about the water tower climb or the Merritt bridge jumping. A life well-lived!!!!!

  9. I will always remember and appreciate Mrs. Walker for teaching us (among other things) “The Great Gatsby” … I vividly remember her reading the description of Gatsby’s party aloud, then concluding, with an enormous smile, “Wouldn’t you have loved to go to one of Gatsby’s parties?” … I also took Poetry with her, where she played a record of Ginsburg reading “Howl,” entertained a recording of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and served as the unwitting inspiration for the creation of a nonexistant poet named Ronald Walter Ludley … Here’s to you, Mrs. Walker!

  10. Ann Bacharach

    Joy’s smile could light up a room. Her intense interest in whatever you had to say was both empowering and delightful.

    I knew her first as an extraordinary teacher at Staples, then as Jono’s mother and finally as Ben, Lydia and Megan’s grandmother. She cared deeply for her family and friends, always asking after my family whenever we met.

    She was the first person to challenge me to finish the NY Times Sunday crossword, a weekly game of who could finish first in the Walker household. I still do the puzzle everyday although not competitively.

    Joy, along with Dick Leonard and Phil Woodruff, was one of the adults who shaped my view of the world and myself as an teen and young adult and for that I will always be grateful.

  11. Mary Palmieri Gai

    I feel a little sorry for myself that I never knew this wonderful woman! How does that happen, living in the same town all these years?? RIP Joy Walker.. peace to Jono and all who loved her. xoxox

  12. David Harrison

    I was relatively new to teaching when I arrived at Staples in 1965. Joy was one of my early role models in an era when there were so many extraordinary teachers in the school.
    By the time–years later– when my wife and I became participants in several years’ worth of charades games played at the Walker home in Maine, we felt we had become part of the family.
    How lucky we were!

  13. Mrs. Walker was a wonderful teacher whom I was lucky to have for senior English 1965-66. I remember her strong preference for an 18 y/o Hamlet, which got the attention of otherwise pre-occupied seniors and her enthusiasm for the rock stalwarts of that era, especially Bob Dylan. I clearly recall her in-class dialogues with Terry Coen ’66, whose knowledge of all things Dylan — and music in general (he went on to become a very senior music industry executive)– was encylopedic. Mrs. W. knew her stuff and could hold her own with Terry. She thought I had potential as a writer but only if I somehow acquired focus that was completely absent in high school. Twenty-odd years later my dad and I sat with her at a Staples football game. She asked me the obligatory question about my professional life. When I caught her up with that she looked at me with a very straight face for a beat or two and then said, “Tom Allen, you could knock me over with a feather.” RIP Mrs. W.

  14. Darcy Hicks

    I’ll always remember Mrs. Walker as the first teacher that helped me to see Shakespeare as accessible and understandable. That’s not an easy task as a high school teacher…she was gifted at sharing her love of literature.

  15. Dick Leonard

    As I recall, Joy started out as a lay reader in 1959 helping English teachers get through the mass of papers they received from their students. Ironically enough, though we were certified teachers, we learned much about correcting papers from her comments. Then in 1960, she was hired as a teacher by the English Department and for many years she and I shared a small office between Rooms 612 and 613. Frank Wiener had the next office off Room 614 and there was great interplay – particularly about Hamlet among the 3 of us.
    Both Joy and I used a great text of short stories called Story and Structure for seniors and would discuss many of the stories that we both used or planned to use. One of those stories, A Domestic Dilemma by Carson McCullers, perfectly illustrates how we define ourselves by how we respond to literature. In the story, a young husband has to deal with an alcoholic wife as he seeks to protect his two young children. He could strangle her or he could continue to love her. There is great language at the close which is ambiguous. I would most often in our discussion take the position that the husband solves his dilemma by killing his young wife (a terrible solution) while Joy would maintain he just goes to sleep and will live with the problem (also a terrible solution.) Thus you had the hardheaded me and the softer, kinder Joy who brought such love to her classes and to the world. Joy, RIP, though perhaps you and Frank are once again discussing Hamlet.

    • Hello Mr. Leonard! From your AP class 80/81, I remember this lesson you gave on the McCullers story, writer intentioned ambiguity, the leaving of white space for the reader to fill in. I’ve also often wondered if there was a central source for the many excellent stories you had us read that year…The Rocking-Horse Winner, Hills Like White Elephants, The Lottery, Araby and Flannery O’Connor…Story and Structure it is, now I know!
      You were a terrific teacher, thank you. The many names posting here to honor Joy Walker read like a who’s who of a truly astonishing English department (back in the day) for a public high school.

      And RE: Hamlet…maybe you remember the Act V Laertes / Hamlet sword scuffle scene you had some of us improvise (well, some of us hadn’t memorized our lines.) If the play’s best read with a 17 year old as Hamlet, it’s even better when a 17 year old Lynn Goldberg (playing Claudius) intuitively re-writes the bard’s: Part them; they are incensed, to: Part them! Part them!…They’re too intense!

      • Dick Leonard

        Hi Doug: Great to hear from you. Lynn Goldberg really was hilarious with language. Early in September she invented the word “squatchy” -not sure what it meant- “strange” perhaps and I used it in my short story at year’s end. Email me if you can.

        • Yes, Lynn turned many a colorful phrase in class. I’ve just now googled “squatchy” to see what she might have had in mind and found a couple definitions.
          Adjective: describing an eerie moment, feeling or sense of what’s to come
          Adjective: derived from the characteristics of a Sasquatch i.e. being stinky and hairy.

          Definitions which might inspire, with apologies to Dickinson….
          Squatchy is that long shadow on the lawn / Indicative that suns go down; / The notice to the startled grass / That Sasquatch is about to pass.

          Thanks for the email…i will come up with a few more great memories of that class and send you a note!

  16. Staples was a remarkable place in the 1960s; remarkable teachers during that secure time which held the last vestiges of Eisenhowerian complacency. Unfortunately the class I was assigned to for AP English was run by a teacher did not see eye to eye with me with and I was quite unhappy. Somehow Mrs. Walker found out about it and stopped me in building 6 one afternoon and, already knowing the answer, asked how I was enjoying my last year of English classes at Staples. I innocently told her I honestly dreaded going to class. Without missing a beat she said “Come transfer into my class, we meet at the same time as you now take English. OK,” she continued, “it’s not an AP level or even an A level, but you’ll enjoy yourself a lot more and I promise to see that your work load is as tough as you can handle so you’ll miss nothing.”

    I took her advice that afternoon. Mrs. Walker had that way of getting most anyone to do whatever she wanted. She was correct, I had more fun then I ever had in an English class before. She made learning a full experience, not just a race to get the best grades. The room was more like a family with different goals and skills, but all willing to work together. She never let me take the easy route and true to her word she made sure I had more work to do than anyone else in the room, but I enjoyed it. I also learned to love Mrs. Walker (hey, she was my teacher, I could not call her Joy, even though she was.).

    I went on in college to take English electives hoping to re-experience the sheer fun of learning I’d had with Mrs. Walker. While college classes were interesting, there was never agin that sense of communal experience and excitement that I found that last year in Staples English.

    Mrs. Walker was an inspired teacher, but more than that she was a wonderful person who communicated her joy to all her students. How lucky her students were to have had that with her.

  17. Who convinces a high schooler to write her author paper on Virginia Woolf? And spend the time in discussion to bring her into focus? Mrs. Walker. Just the other day I was marvelling that I now get to revisit Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, thanks to Joy Walker.

  18. Rick Leonard

    Wow, what a rousing tribute to such an incredible woman! We go back with Joy and the Walker family so many years and in so many dimensions, it is really hard to sum up the memories or zero in on that “just one thing” that sticks out. Joy was a teacher in every sense of the word — she taught me to be a stronger writer, to enjoy Malamud, to play better tennis, to solve crosswords, to find beach treasures, to let loose and to laugh. But most of all, Joy taught us to have fun. Charades games together in Maine were hard fought, epic and hilarious. We laughed so hard we often cried. And the retellings of the games became legendary for that summer and for years to come. Joy, your smile, calming ways and independent streak left an indelible mark on us all. We miss you.

  19. I had Joy Walker for English. I was fortunate to have Experimental English in my senior year. In her class, i was inspired to read. I read more books in her class than any other. She triggered my imagination, and helped form my goals as an artist. I will forever be grateful for her wit, and her uncanny way of making learning a treasure. She, sparked more than just a love for words, she sparked the love of story and the many ways to translate that story. I chose Illustration and Animation. Those pictures have become the best part of who I am. I will say this. She never lost her sense of humor. And, could dish it back with the best of them. She would use scrabble as a way to teach us to think about words. A dictionary was always handy.
    And, the games always engaging. And, while my mother could do the NY Times Crossword Puzzle in Ink. I still struggle with a No. 2 pencil and an eraser. RIP Joy. You were definitely love.

  20. Why won’t my kids believe me when I say we had the Doors, Sly, and Cream perform concerts at staples? Staples High School is an icon in my life. never before or after was I able to choose between total freedom vs rules and have it not really matter! For some of us who have kids at Staples, the most difficult adjustment is the fact that all the buildings are connected now. you don’t have to drag your coat along all day, and you don’t have wet feet from 8 am! Back to school night, you’ll find us “old timers” (parents) navagating the kid’s schedules from outside, because the connecting buildings just don’t make sense!

  21. I never had her as a teacher. I am very good friends with Pete Wassell’s son Peter . He is quite the flyfisherman and has been teaching me. We found out about our westport connection while working at otter creek brewing . Small world .

  22. That anonymous post is from me. Anne Runyon