News

York County man was 'a real-life 007'

Written by Mike Argento/York Daily Record | Jun 9, 2018 2:00 PM

Ron Walters grew up in Elders Ridge, not much more than a crossroads in rural Indiana County in Western Pennsylvania's coal country, known mostly for the slag heaps left behind by the region's mines. 

He grew up poor, hanging out with a bunch of guys from town who called themselves the Boney Dump Gang, a loose association of like-minded kids, looking for mischief and adventure and often finding it. His friends called him "Honk," homage to the size of his proboscis. 

They would swim in the river that ran by the town, even though they weren't supposed to because it contained the toxic runoff from the local coal mines. They would often swim in their birthday suits and steal the clothing of other kids when they had the chance. Once, Ron gashed his foot on some broken glass embedded in the bottom of the river, and rather than tell his parents about it, he went to a friend's house, where his friend's mother stitched up his wound. He tried to hide it from his parents, but it got infected and his subterfuge was exposed.  

They would play around the natural gas wells that dotted the hills and had learned to ignite the gas seeping from them, creating blowtorch-like daggers of flame to erupt from them. 

And they would play in the boney dumps, the slag heaps of smoldering waste excavated from the coal mines, clouds of noxious smoke seeping from the burning coal contained in the heap. On occasion, the coal companies would try to extinguish the burning coal using a bulldozer. They lost a number of bulldozers doing that. Still, Ron and his buddies played in the dumps, igniting sticks by shoving them into the crevices in the pile and creating large clouds of steam by urinating on the smoking coal. 

He told his wife about living off surplus food in the '50s, during the recession after the end of the Korean War, the big can of peanut butter often providing the family's lone sustenance. 

He was a good student, and upon graduation from high school, he fled Elders Ridge by enlisting in the Air Force, stationed first in Texas and then in Alaska, outside of Anchorage. He loved the service. For one thing, the barracks had indoor plumbing, something the home he grew up in lacked. For another thing, he loved the chow and the fact that you could eat all you wanted. His comrades complained about the food, but he never quite understood that. Try growing up eating government-surplus peanut butter and military chow looks pretty good. 

He was stationed in Alaska when the '64 earthquake struck, measuring 9.4 on the Ritcher Scale and causing widespread damage in Anchorage and environs. He and some of his buddies were supposed to go into town that Friday night - the quake struck at 5:46 p.m. on Good Friday - and when they got to the neighborhood in the Turnagain Heights area near Anchorage, all they could see was devastation. He had friends who lived there and was heartbroken, gazing at the piles of rubble that used to be a neighborhood. 

In the service, he worked as a weather analyst, much of his work classified. It wasn't entirely clear what that title meant, or why analyzing weather would be considered top secret. But he did know a lot about weather, for what that's worth. 

He left the service in '64 and moved back home, getting a job in a gas station and courting Jennie Durand, who was working in a hand grenade factory while attending college. He convinced her to marry him, something neither one of them ever regretted.  

Ron Walters - YDR.jpg

Ron Walters (Photo: Submitted)

Around that time, a friend had told Ron that something called the National Security Agency was hiring and that, with his background working with classified material in the Air Force, he should apply. Both he and Jennie wound up working for the NSA, first in Maryland and later in Germany and England. He was an analyst, which, in terms of job descriptions within the NSA, could mean anything, Jennie said. He couldn't talk about the particulars of his work due to its classified nature. His daughters, though, always believed he was a spy, "a real-life 007," an improvement over the fictional character in that he could sing. She wrote later that her father's service to the country included "listening to us all and kicking Russian ass until he 'retired.'" 

He had a wide variety of interests. He was a fisherman and tried to instill in his two daughters the beauty and Zen-like peace that comes from wading in a trout stream for hours on end. He was a spelunker, picking up the hobby when he was stationed in England, exploring the caves around Yorkshire. He was physically suited for it, standing 5-7 and weighing about 170. He would take school kids on field trips to the caves, and once, the school principal, who was not as svelte as Ron, got stuck in a cave and had to be rescued.  

He traveled the world and was one of those guys who, within moments of landing in a foreign land, made new, lifelong friends. He could hold forth about a variety of topics and was curious about everything. For instance, he got into geology and collected rocks, he and Jen making a trip to Loch Ness, not to see the famed monster, but to collect mica from the surrounding ridges. When they returned from England, their baggage was overweight, stuffed with rocks they collected while living there. 

He loved hiking and nature and the outdoors. He never lost that childlike curiosity about figuring out how things worked. He always passed on his knowledge, whether it was just to his daughters and grandchildren, or to classes at Dallastown, where his daughters went to school. The kids always looked forward to his visits; he could talk about anything and everything, for hours.  

Ron Walters pheasant - YDR.jpg

Ron Walters as an avid outdoorsman. (Photo: Submitted)

Among the lessons he imparted was, according to his daughter, "do not approach a heron in the wild, or ever." He learned that lesson while fishing with a buddy. They were in a rowboat in a lake when they spotted a heron on the shore and decided to try to catch it. They stealthily approached it, and when they sidled up next to it, Ron tried to grab it by its neck. The heron objected and proceeded to peck violently at Ron's face, his glasses the only thing preventing the bird from pecking out his eyeballs.  

He was an avid gardener and it caused some dispute in his semi-rural neighborhood. The only spot on their property that got any proper sun was in the front yard, so that's where he grew his zucchini, cucumbers and hot peppers. The dispute died down after Ron shared his crops with everyone and anyone. He could make anything out of zucchini and shared his knowledge freely.  

He didn't tolerate varmints well. Once, when a chipmunk got into his house, he hunted it down with a BB gun. He drew a bead on the critter, but when he pulled the trigger, he shot himself in the thumb, somehow. It became a family joke, along the lines of the joke in "A Christmas Story" about shooting your eye out.  

There was a line in his obituary that went, "Every one of his grandchildren can create a weapon using only hairspray and vegetables," a reference to his ability to make a cannon with PVC pipe, using hairspray as a propellant and a potato as ammunition. He also taught his daughters, and his grandchildren, how to survive. He taught them how to make a blow gun, how to use a bow and arrow, how to use a machete, how to start a fire using strips of a magnesium. He thought they should know those skills. He taught them how to throw knives and axes, although, when they were young, they didn't quite have the upper-body strength to throw an ax. He taught them how to clean a fish. 

He hated carnival rides. He could tolerate roller coasters, before they started doing loops and whatnot. But other rides, he couldn't stand. Just looking at a merry-go-round made him nauseous.  

He went out of his way to help people. His wife said, "If you were stuck on the side of the road, he was the guy who would stop and help you." 

He lived every moment like it was his last. "There weren't enough hours in the day for him to do everything he wanted to do," Jennie said. "His bucket list was 10 miles long." 

His time ran out on May 29, 27 days after he turned 76. 

He was cremated, and his ashes were sent back home to Elders Ridge for interment, his adventure ending where it began. 

He left one last bit of advice, to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchild: "Ask yourself each morning, what good can I do for someone else today?" 

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record. 

Published in York

back to top

Give Now

Estate Planning

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Smart Talk

National Edward R. Murrow Awards

DuPont Columbia Awards

Support Local Journalism

Latest News from NPR

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »