By Ann Cipperly
Whenever Jane Walker learned of a need in the community, she became determined to find a way to solve the problem, regardless of how many people said it would be almost impossible. Over her lifetime, she touched thousands of lives throughout the state, and left a legacy that continues to change lives.
When Jane Walker learned that children were being taken to jail in Lee County if there was no place else to go, she felt she had to do something about it. Jane and Cecil Moreman, who was also concerned about the children, worked together to have land donated and purchased an old house.
After fundraisers failed to raise enough funds for a facility, the determined women campaigned to have a property tax passed, which was unprecedented. Through their efforts, the Lee County Youth Development Center opened in 1973.
On Aug. 20, the center celebrated its 45th year and held the ribbon cutting for the Chanticleer Day School. The center, with Laura Cooper as the executive director, has helped thousands of abused, neglected children and youth and is the only place like it in the world.
The center is one of many community efforts that Jane was involved in throughout the years.
Growing up in Carrollton, Georgia, Jane was an only child, whose parents were interested in public service and active in church. While attending Shorter College, her father suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Jane came home to work in his insurance business until her cousin returned from the war. She continued her education and graduated from the University of Georgia where she was secretary of the Women Student Government Association.
When Jane was teaching school in Columbus, Georgia, her roommate, who was from Opelika, invited her home one weekend for a blind date with a young attorney, Jacob Walker Jr.
Jacob was born in Opelika, the son of one of the best criminal lawyers in the state, Jacob Walker Sr. When Jacob graduated from Harvard, World War II was in progress. He joined the Army Signal Corps and served at the Pentagon and in China when the war ended. Jacob returned to Harvard to graduate from law school in 1949 and entered law practice with his father.
Jacob and Jane were married in June 1957. They lived on Floral Drive for three years before building their home in Collinwood, a short distance from where Jacob grew up on Tenth Street. The Walkers’ two children, Mary Lillian and Jake III, were born the first few years after moving to Collinwood.
Jane had always enjoyed an active life. She began working in church and with Girl Scouts, becoming the cookie chairman. The first year a huge moving van pulled up in front of her house with boxes of cookies that filled their storage room and the carport. Jane devised a better system the following year.
Jane accepted the responsibility of children’s coordinator at Trinity United Methodist Church, serving for 10 years and was the district coordinator for children’s ministries.
She served as president of United Methodist Women for three terms, which had a huge influence on her life. When she became district president, she began attending conferences at Blue Lake, the Methodist retreat.
During one of these retreats, a play was presented on affluence and poverty, which featured two women in an elevator. One woman was a maid saying she wanted her children to have all the things other people’s children had. The other woman in the elevator was a person like Jane who was well dressed. “The Lord spoke to me,” Jane later said. “Nothing had ever struck me like that. The presentation was a life-changing experience.”
When Jane came home, she received a letter from the Pilot Club announcing an organizational meeting of the Lee County Council of Neglected and Dependent Girls. Jane thought she was too busy to become involved until she received a call asking her to be president. When she discussed it with Jacob, Jane learned that children were being taken to the jail.
If both parents were arrested, there was no place for the children to go except to jail. Jane felt she had to do something about it. She decided to accept the presidency if they changed the name of the council to “children” instead of “girls” because she thought all children needed help.
Cecil Moreman, who was the owner of Andy’s restaurant, was also civic minded. Whit Whittelsey, who was a family court lawyer, told her about all the children who were having to be taken to jail. Cecil was active in the Pilot Club and a member of the council.
The purpose of the council was to find a place for children to stay when they had no place to go. Jane involved the United Methodist Women and Auburn University students in fund raising. She was about to give up on getting land when Joan King, a member of UMW, told Jane that she and her husband George would give 15 acres of land. The council purchased an old house for $500 and moved it to the donated site, which is the Cecil D. Moreman House.
After working to raise funds for two years, the council had $10,000 but it wasn’t enough for buildings or to staff the facility. Jane and Cecil decided to meet with the county commissioners to see what they could do to help the children of Lee County.
When the ladies met to discuss what they would say, Jane said, “We will ask for a tax to help the children in the county.”
Jacob was sitting in his office at the law firm when he read in the afternoon newspaper what his wife had asked the commissioners. Jacob called to ask if she wanted to withdraw the request for a tax. Although Jacob was always supportive of Jane and donated his legal services to her volunteer projects, he felt getting a tax was going to be difficult.
In order for the tax to become a reality, it had to pass through the legislature, have a constitutional amendment passed locally and then pass in a statewide election. Jane believed it was a miracle the tax passed and that “God had a hand in it.”
The passing of the tax was unprecedented. To this day, there is no place else on the globe where citizens have passed a tax to help abused and neglected children. Since opening, the center experienced tremendous growth and is unique with a complete, wide spectrum of services for prevention to treatment and everything in between.
After the tax passed, Jane continued searching for ways to receive matching funds. She called the Family and Child Development Department at Auburn University to write grants while she worked on public relations. Through this effort, Project Uplift was developed, which is the prevention arm of the Youth Development Center.
While Jacob jokingly told everyone he supported Jane as a full-time volunteer, he was busy as well in volunteering his time and talents, serving as president and chairman of local and state organizations. He was appointed by the governor to the Alabama Public Television Commission and served as Bar Commissioner from the fifth Judicial Circuit from 1954 until 1971. Jacob was chairman of the committee that rewrote the Alabama Rules of Appellate Procedure.
In the 1980s, when the Methodist church began a campaign for children, Jane became involved. During this time, she received a call to attend the organizational meeting of the Boys and Girls Club.
Jane later said, “I would be studying something and then the Lord would have someone call me to do something about it.” Jane was one of the founders of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Lee County and its first president.
In 1990, two clubs opened on the same day, one in Opelika and another in Auburn. Both of these clubs offer prevention programs to hundreds of children every year. Jane stayed involved, serving as chairman of the advisory committee.
Jane was president of the Opelika Historic Preservation Society when the Brownfield House was moved and the Main Street program was organized. During this busy time, she became the first woman to run for mayor in Opelika.
She was the first woman to receive the Chamber’s Man of the Year Award. She also received the Boys and Girls Clubs’ Pacesetter Award, Girl Scout’s Woman of Achievement, Dream Achievement Award, among many others. The Methodist church has honored her by presenting a scholarship annually in her name to a young woman going into the ministry.
Jane would say the most important thing had been her relationship with God through Trinity church, which led her to do the things she was able to do.
Family life was important to the Walkers. Their son Jake is a local circuit judge and married to Edith Smith T Walker, while daughter Mary Lillian Walker, an attorney in Atlanta, is married to Sean Richard Smith. The grandchildren are Sean Smith Jr., Mary Winston Walker and Jacob Hamilton Walker.
As the Lee County Youth Development Center continues to grow, Jane’s and Cecil’s legacy will continue to help thousands of children and youth throughout the state.