By Julia Ann Dudley Najieb
(Full audio version available below.)
I want everyone to know that this has been the hardest piece I’ve ever had to write; I have stalled writing, hoping that reality would not hit me too hard, the reality of not being able to see or talk to one of the most influential mentors in my life for the rest of my life on this earth. Dr. James E. Walton was a key reason I have continued to be who I am today, as a writer and journalist.
Each time, I’ve come to the computer screen knowing exactly what I want to write about him, but each time, I have broken down to tears, not able to find the words to type. Each time, the memories come back, and my mind is distraught all over again, tears held back. I get up, and I walk away from the computer, hoping that my painful sorrow will disappear—I am mistaken every time.
This time, I write this piece with full-on tears; the very essence of who I am today as a journalist is from the direct influence of Dr. Walton.
Like many of the Black professors on campus, they shouldered the responsibility of being mentors for all of us Black students, even if we did not have them as professors: Dr. Malik Simba, Dr. Small, Dr. Mikell, Dr. Jerome Jackson, Dr. Paulette Fleming and a host of others—we would seek them out for sound advice, or for real talk we may not have wanted to hear. Somehow their offices were always open to us.
And for those of us Black students in the mass communications department, well, we had Dr. Walton from the English department—I don’t think any of us thought that label mattered, we were just so excited to be able to have a Black mentor who could relate to our future writing careers as journalists and broadcasters.
I don’t know if Dr. Walton had an open-door policy or office hours; as needy Black students, we did not see that as significant information at the time. Instead, we would check to see if he was in his office by stopping by, or on his way to his office, by standing near his building waiting for him to appear. In fact, we would watch out for him trekking up the four flights of stairs to his office, wearing his signature dark shades; then we would follow him using the elevator, of course, eager for him to help us solve our menial problems.
In the calmest of matter-of-fact voice, he would listen, ask questions, and interject with a short story from his personal experience, and then provide suggestions—no matter how grave the situation seemed, his voice was always the same sincere monotone, expressing the best resolve.
Dr. Walton took me in, although I was never a student in his class, he knew I had just come from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), a Black college in Virginia, not too far from Norfolk. I was feeling the blues trying to acclimate myself with Fresno, CA and the overt racism on campus from non-Black professors and students. Many times I would seek his advice for the professors who were discriminatorily and harshly grading my written papers, or who would bluntly comment to me that I would never become a good writer or journalist. I could not believe how intense the racism was on campus; so many times I wanted to transfer to a different college.
Well, he introduced me to Dr. Fleming who was a graduate of Hampton University and a Fresno State arts professor. I soon felt very at home, as I would visit her just to be able to have a Black female role model to look up to; this began my journey to feel more at home at Fresno State.
Thereafter, Dr. Walton asked me to take over the editor-in-chief position of the Uhuru Na Umoja, the Black newspaper that was the sole voice for the Black campus community. Without hesitation, I did so willingly for the next three years. As he was the adviser, Dr. Walton would never leave us hanging; he too, would be up late night to help us copyedit the monthly paper before deadline. He would also help us find the writers, or national commentators we could use for content. He, too, would also write commentary on local trends and issues related to the Black diaspora. He would also do the final edit to help us catch as many errors as possible, (no spell-check tool back then.) Every step of the way, he was encouraging, even when we all were exhausted at deadline, wanting to give up at 3:00 AM.
The feeling after the paper would be published was gratifying and worth the lack of sleep, as we would see our fellow students eager to grab the latest newspaper, and read the news from a Black perspective.
The resources were limited, yet, somehow we found a way to make sure the paper was distributed not only throughout campus, but throughout the Fresno community.
After graduation, Dr. Walton would ask me to continue mentoring and assisting the upcoming Uhuru Na Umoja editor-in-chiefs over the next several years, and I did per his request, without hesitation—it also gave him a nice break as an adviser. I treasured his confidence in me to be that consultant for these budding student journalists.
It was because of Dr. Walton’s influence and letters of recommendation I was able to become an accomplished McNair Scholar; I did not have the drive to press on by myself after my mother’s passing which happened to be a month before graduation. He encouraged me to move forward, no matter what—and I did. Although he was baffled that I did not get into the Fresno State MFA program, he was more elated that USC and UCLA had both accepted me in high regard—I am most certain that his letters of recommendation were a strong influence in my acceptance to both university programs.
Even after my post-graduate degrees, Dr. Walton kept close tabs on me, and would certainly voice his opinion if he felt I was going off the right track—I would hear his voice echo in my head for the rest of the day if I did not at least consider his point of view.
When I became a playwright, he would look over my scripts in between his busy workload and family life. He would attend my plays, and I was always ready for his positive criticism which would help me improve my writing skills. His solutions and criticism were not only justified, but seemed to be right every time—and so I listened!
Our friendship-mentorship continued throughout the years, as he would share with me what his daughter Tiffany was doing; this time, he would ask me for suggestions to help her, and I gladly gave him my recommendations. I would always look forward to an update of her progress throughout the years; he would share her accomplishments as any proud father would.
However in 2017, when he came to visit my coffee shop to dine, he let me know of one of his disappointments in me which he felt I should have pursued— I listened at that very moment and really contemplated on his positive criticism, only to realize he was right once again!
It is difficult for me to say farewell to a mentor who championed my journalistic career every step of the way; he and Mrs. Walton were always supportive of my plays, events and TV news shows—and even then, he was always supportive with positive suggestions to enhance my news delivery.
In these last two years, I regret that I did not keep in touch with him; my own life was crowded with obligations and responsibilities, and I did not take the time to reach out to him and Mrs. Walton as I should have.
I think this is the lesson learned in the oddest way; please take the time to reach out to those who have influenced you, made a big impression on your life: Let them know how much they mean to you, and how grateful you are for them.
If he were here in person in front of me, I would tell him, right now: Thank you, Dr. Walton, for everything you have done for me and other Black students. Most importantly, thank you for believing in me, believing I could be that successful journalist and writer, who would one day impact the lives of many in the Black community with relevant news and information to improve their lives.
Thank you so much, for everything.
Faculty and staff from English and Africana Studies will present a memorial tribute in honor of Dr. Walton at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15 inside the Wahlberg Recital Hall, in Fresno State’s Music Building. Admission is free. Parking is free in recommended lot P31 or P30.