Meet Clarence Walker, a 97-year-old World War II veteran and church usher.
• A testament to his faith: Walker got the nickname “the Testament Man” in World War II, “because I always had a testament in my shirt pocket. If you wanted to know something about the Bible, they’d say, ‘See the Testament Man!’”
• Super senior model: When Walker signed up for his veterans benefits — at age 95 — the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs office asked him to model for a poster about how it’s never too late to apply.
As a child, Clarence Walker chased his dream of becoming a church usher so fervently that his parents finally caved and allowed him to serve — when he turned 5.
“All I wanted to do was help,” he said.
When Walker’s draft notice came 16 years later, during World War II, he felt the same way.
“I said, ‘Somebody has to do it. I don’t mind helping.'"
Now 97, Walker is still helping others. These days, it’s at Holy Cross Baptist Church in Overbrook, where he serves as an usher two Sundays a month — as he’s done for the last 55 years.
“First he dazzles them with the handsome smile, and then he makes them feel welcome,” Holy Cross deacon Calvin Green said.
Growing up in North, S.C., Walker was one of 11 children in a farming family. He dropped out of high school his sophomore year to work in a cafeteria to save enough money to someday leave the farm.
But then World War II hit, and Walker, along with two of his brothers, was drafted into the Army.
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Walker served in England and then in Normandy, where he arrived one month after D-Day.
“It looked like chaos,” he said of Normandy’s shores. “Ships were lined up that were bombed out and blocking the beach ... and there was still a few bodies in between."
Walker was charged with setting up supply caves and overseeing German prisoners of war ordered to help the effort. But some enemy soldiers tried to hide in caves, and the Army had to burn them out, Walker said.
“We were there almost a year, and every time it got damp, you could still smell burnt flesh,” he said.
Walker was discharged in 1946 and awarded several medals, including two Bronze Stars. After briefly returning to South Carolina, he and his future bride, Birdie, made their way to Philly in 1947.
“I got my training in the trades, but I didn’t pursue them, because they didn’t have nothing to eat,” he said. “I’m a person who likes to eat, so I stayed at the restaurant. I only worked there 21 years."
In the 1970s, Walker joined the General Services Administration’s custodial force, first at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center and then at the federal courthouse at Sixth and Market Streets, where he retired in 1987.
It was Green, his church deacon, who suggested two years ago that Walker should finally sign up for his veterans benefits.
“We’re sitting there, and he gave the rep from the VA his papers, and right away the rep said, ‘Wow!’ and called his supervisor, and they started taking pictures,” Green said.
The folks at the Philly VA asked Walker if he’d pose for a poster with another elderly veteran, which they hung at the local medical center to remind others it’s never too late to apply for benefits.
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Walker’s wife died in 2003 (he still wears his wedding ring), and he’s the only surviving member of his 11 siblings. Much has changed in his 97 years, he said, including his West Philly neighborhood, where he now worries about getting shot by a stray bullet.
“There’s more people mad at more people now than there was during World War II,” he said.
But Walker doesn’t let it stop him from going out, especially on Sundays, when he still gets to chase the dream he had as a child — to be a church usher, to help.
“You take your chances, and you keep going,” Walker said of life. “And you keep looking up, because that’s where the light comes from.”
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