Sloan Column: Meeting a real life American hero
About this time every year I blow the dust off my seldom-used checkbook and begrudgingly scrawl my signature in the bottom right corner of a promissory note.
“Pay to the order of Internal Revenue Service.”
I’m a card-carrying member of the procrastinator’s club when it comes to paying taxes. I’ll have my documents prepared and ready to go, but I always wait until April 15, the last day to file taxes, before dropping them in the mailbox.
Lots of folks actually look forward to this time of year because they get something called a refund. It’s been so long since I received one I’ve forgotten what “refund” means. When it comes to Uncle Sam reaching into my pockets, he taketh far more than I receiveth. This year, sadly, is no exception.
Tax time is slightly different this year, though. Taking into consideration the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Uncle Sam decided to extend the deadline for filing tax returns until May 17. I get to wait another month before making my annual pilgrimage to the poorhouse – gee, thanks.
When it comes to the IRS, I am not a fan. Having served in the Marine Corps, I have an extensive “not in polite company” vocabulary. Most of it could be used in describing my thoughts on the IRS and what I think they can do with their never-ending list of forms.
I do possess one good memory of the IRS, though. In fact, it’s actually a very good one.
In the fall of 2011, a friendly, white-haired man assisted by a walking cane appeared in the doorway to my office in Hartsville. His name was Johnnie Mac Walters.
After exchanging pleasantries, the bespectacled Southern gentleman in a neatly pressed navy blue suit graciously accepted my invitation to take a seat. As he began to speak, it was immediately apparent that even at the age of 92 he still had a firm grasp on his faculties. He placed the book he carried with him on my desk, saying that it was his life story and it had just been published. The book was named “Our Journey.” The painting on the cover showed Walters and his wife, Donna, walking hand in hand down a park pathway.
As I sat and listened to the well spoken Mr. Walters tell me his story, I soon realized this was, for me, a “once in a lifetime” moment. Sitting across from me was a genuine, in the flesh hero of the highest caliber. What this man had done required extraordinary courage and immense moral fortitude, not to mention a very large set of brass ones.
In clear voice and concise language, Mr. Walters explained that he grew up in nearby Lydia as the son of sharecroppers. It was not an easy life, he said, stating that their home had no electricity or running water. His parents, he said, were good people. They were honest, hardworking, and did the best they could to provide for the family.
He graduated from Hartsville High School, enrolled at Furman University and earned a degree in economics. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. After the war he attended and graduated from the University of Michigan Law School.
In 1969 he was appointed an assistant attorney general in the Richard Nixon administration. Two years later the president appointed him as commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.
In 1972, three months after the Watergate break-ins, Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean presented Mr. Walters with a list of “enemies.” The IRS was to investigate all of them, Dean said, by order of the president.
Mr. Walters chose not to order the investigations. Instead, he put the list in an envelope, sealed it, and locked it in his safe. He then obtained permission to do nothing from his superior, Secretary of the Treasury George Shultz.
Commissioner Walters then tendered his resignation to President Nixon.
“Sometimes you simply must do the right thing, no matter the cost,” he told me.
I listened to the story unfold with awe and reverence. As he got ready to leave, I shook his hand and thanked him for sharing his amazing story. I promised I would get something in the paper. He thanked me in return and wrote a short note of appreciation on the title page of his book and signed it. Using his cane to steady himself, he then slowly made his way out the front door.
I had just had a brush with greatness. This man, the son of a farmer from little old Lydia, found himself in a confrontation with arguably the most powerful man in the world. On principle, he chose to take a stand. To me, that’s the stuff of which heroes are made.
Some two weeks later I received a personal letter from Mr. Walters thanking me for my efforts and offering his best wishes to my family. The book and the letter remain on the bookcase in my office.
Whenever it’s time to pay my taxes and all those nasty thoughts start creeping in, I try to think of Mr. Johnnie Mac Walters. It reminds me that even the IRS isn’t all bad.