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Obituary: Jimmy Walker, a unique journalist

Published 16/12/2015

Sports writer Jimmy Walker was renowned for his total recall
Sports writer Jimmy Walker was renowned for his total recall

Renowned sports journalist Jimmy Walker, who has passed away aged 78, made his name and mark as a unique talent in a golden era of the profession when gifted writers like him were almost as celebrated as the sports stars whose exploits they charted.

Jimmy served as deputy sports editor of the Belfast Telegraph under the late, great Malcolm Brodie for almost 30 years until retirement in 1994.

He produced great papers alongside household names of sports journalism on the Telegraph sports desk, and was known and avidly followed by generations of readers. His contemporaries Malcolm, Bill Ireland, Jack Magowan and Gordon Hanna pre-deceased him. Sammy Hamill, Ronnie Harper and Colin McMullan are in retirement.

They were the journalistic galacticos of their day in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties through to the early 1990s. But what set Jimmy apart on a team of all talents was his uncanny recall.

He never took notes, at interview or when preparing his stories for publication. He did it all from an amazingly retentive memory, dictating his reports - word and grammar perfect - straight off the top of his head to a copy-taker in Belfast by landline from sporting events great and small in the days before mobile phones and laptops.

One week he would be telephoning from the Press box at Epsom with only plate glass separating him from the royals, the next from an old double-decker bus that served as the Press working area at the North West 200 of the Seventies.

Horse racing and motorcycle racing were his specialist subjects on the Telegraph (he even took his wife of 41 years Iris to the Derby on their honeymoon and sent a report to the Sixth edition).

Boxing and football were his other sporting passions. He wrote boxing for the defunct Northern Whig in the heyday of the fight game in Belfast, and he was a walking encyclopedia of football people, facts and figures.

His articles and insights earned him a legion of readers and, having the ear of the top trainers, his horse racing fancies continued to be much sought after in retirement as a guest tipster at Down Royal racecourse.

He also wrote biographies of the late Dunlop brothers, Joey and Robert, whom he idolised, another on the jockey Richard Dunwoody and Winner Alright, and an anthology of Irish racing.

He knew all there was to know about his subjects to the extent that his remarkable ability was brought home to a new generation in the office on the tragic day in June 2000 when Joey Dunlop lost his life in a crash in Estonia.

Tracked down to the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse, Jimmy was asked if he could pen a 2,000-word tribute and how long he needed before calling back.

"Put me onto copy now," replied Jimmy, and instantly dictated a masterpiece on the life and times of the great Joey.

Jimmy was an old-school journalist who ran the desk with a rod of iron to ensure accuracy and quality went hand-in-hand with meeting tight deadlines on a multi-edition evening paper and on the old Ireland's Saturday Night, which he never failed to have on the streets within an hour of the final whistle.

He also had his lighter moments, with a sharp, observational style of humour he shared with his comedian cousin Roy Walker of Catchphrase fame. Despite failing health, he would have been proud to be involved in campaigning journalism to the end as Iris fought a successful battle through the media to last week prevent the closure of Oakridge Nursing Home in Ballynahinch, his home for the past three years.

"I couldn't save my husband, but I was determined to save his home," Iris said yesterday.

Down Royal racecourse manager Mike Todd paid this tribute: "Jimmy was for many years the voice of the northern racing scene. In the days before social media and the internet, his column in the Belfast Telegraph was a must-read and kept us all updated with the latest news and inside stories of the local racing scene."

Born in London, where his father was working, Jimmy was a son of east Belfast from childhood.

He is survived by Iris, daughter Shelley, grandson Olly and brother Roy, who now lives in California.

His funeral service will be held at Malone Presbyterian Church in Belfast at noon on Friday.

Belfast Telegraph

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