It’s a sad day under the whispering maples at Simpson College.
Dr. Joseph W. Walt, who not only wrote the history of Simpson but also was a commanding presence on campus for more than half a century, died early Jan. 2. He was 88.
Walt was a Simpson history professor from 1955 to 1994. Hundreds of students took his Western Civilization course, which he continued to teach even after his retirement as a professor emeritus.
To students on campus, he was known as “Doc Walt.” To his Indianola friends, he was “Uncle Joe.”
“We always called him ‘Mr. Simpson,’ but never to his face,” said Owen Duncan, a professor emeritus of history who was hired by Walt in 1969. “Yet it was true. To the community, and to the alumni, Joe embodied Simpson College.”
In addition to his teaching and research, Walt was a passionate advocate of study abroad programs, as well as a tireless promoter of Greek life. He was a member and later a national officer of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and the organization’s library in Evanston, Ill., is named in his honor.
“It is impossible to calculate the impact that Joe Walt had at Simpson College,” said President John W. Byrd. “Joe supported the College in so many ways. Even as generations of my fellow Simpsonians grieve, we celebrate his truly extraordinary legacy to Simpson College.”
Bob Lane, vice president for College Advancement and a 1981 Simpson graduate, said Walt “touched the lives of literally thousands of alumni.”
Walt will be long remembered as the author of, “Beneath the Whispering Maples: The History of Simpson College,” which was released in 1994. It remains the authoritative guide to most of Simpson’s 152-year history.
Duncan said Walt was approached by then-President Robert McBride in 1984 about writing the history of Simpson in time for the College’s 125th anniversary. McBride thought the book project would take a year; it took 10.
Many of the college’s official documents had been lost in the fire that burned the administrative building in 1918. But Walt combed through years of old newspapers at the State Historical Society of Iowa to piece together the story of Simpson.
“Could one, I wondered, find much of value in these crumbling newspapers?” he wrote in the book’s preface. “Did old Indianola newspapers hold the treasure that for so long had eluded us? I went to Des Moines to find out. With a mixture of hope and fear I picked up the oldest Indianola newspapers I could find…. I was thunderstruck when I discovered that the story of Simpson was there, from a front page story of the school’s founding in 1860 to accounts of all its struggles and triumphs.”
Duncan said Walt’s manner was “very formal. He wanted things done properly and done in an orderly way. He had very good, well-organized lectures.”
But it was the distinctly personal touches that set Walt apart on campus. Duncan remembered when he was conducting research in London for a doctoral dissertation. When Duncan said the food wasn’t as good as Walt had suggested, “he sent me $20 and told me to go get a decent meal. That was Joe.”
Joseph W. Walt was born April 21, 1924 in Los Angeles, Calif., to Harold H. Walt and Nell Wood Walt. He served as a Mormon missionary in Switzerland and was a member of the U.S. Navy during World War II.
He earned academic degrees from the University of California Los Angeles, the University of Tennessee and Northwestern University.
At Simpson, Walt hosted dozens of German youths who studied in Iowa as exchange students. He was a world traveler, and often accompanied students and faculty on study abroad trips to Britain, Germany and Greece.
“Even those who only knew him casually benefitted from his infectious charm, boundless wit and hoard of wisdom,” said Ev Laning, a Simpson professor emeritus of sociology and applied social science.
Walt is survived by three nephews and a niece.