Matthew Rice remembers the commotion his grandfather caused when he accompanied him to a Navy recruitment station in Virginia Beach a decade ago.
"The chief immediately stood up, and I remember laughing to myself on the inside because he couldn't form a full sentence," Rice, a former Navy senior chief petty officer, said of the recruiter. "He stumbled all over himself as he got his bottle of water."
That's because the man who stood in front of the recruiters that day was not just any retired sailor. But, to hear friends and family members talk, former Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Robert Walker Sr. would probably say that's exactly the sort of sailor he was: just like them.
The Navy community gathered Tuesday at Norfolk Naval Station to mourn Walker, who died Feb. 15 at 87. He served as the Navy's third master chief petty officer of the Navy, the service's most senior enlisted person, from 1975 until his retirement in 1979.
Walker was born in Baldwin, N.Y. and enlisted in 1948. He was promoted to chief petty officer after eight years and to master chief petty officer in 1963. Walker served as senior enlisted adviser and leading chief for combat systems training at Fleet Combat Direction Systems Training Center at what's now the Dam Neck Annex to Oceana Naval Air Station. A building at Dam Neck is named for him. Several tours brought Walker to Hampton Roads, and the family settled in Virginia Beach after his retirement.
Walker was known as an advocate for enlisted sailors, pushing for greater training throughout the ranks, and he created the Enlisted Surface Warfare Qualification program. His recommendation led to the Navy Senior Enlisted Academy, which continues to this day.
Walker's work helped professionalize the service, current Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens said.
"He was more of a sailor's sailor," he said.
Stevens read a letter from Adm. John Richardson, in which the chief of naval operations honored Walker for serving with dignity and grace during a difficult time for all the services after the Vietnam War.
"He worked tirelessly to make our Navy better," Richardson wrote.
Walker's devotion to his sailors extended far beyond his retirement. Bill Slingerland said Walker often stopped by his office when Slingerland served as command master chief petty officer for the Navy Mid-Atlantic Region and as force master chief petty officer for Naval Surface Force Atlantic.
For a long time, Slingerland thought it was the free coffee Walker was after.
"Over the years, I realized he was helping mentor me and making sure I wasn't getting distracted by all the background noise," he said. "I didn't realize how much I had learned from him over the years."
Walker also helped create the Chief Petty Officer Scholarship Fund with former Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Duane Bushey, who served in the post from 1988 to 1992.
Walker mentored Bushey throughout his service. That mentorship turned into a lasting friendship.
As soon as Bushey retired, Walker gave him the nickname "Boot Camp." It was Walker's way of letting Bushey know his work as MCPON may be done but the training to continue his civilian commitment was just beginning.
"I was the junior MCPON, according to him," Bushey said.
Walker also had a lighter side, one that would feign sleep on the couch while his daughters put makeup on his face.
Walker and his wife, Fran, marked their 64th wedding anniversary in December. The couple had six children. She remembered years that their children would wait as late as June to celebrate Christmas because their father was deployed.
"He was awesome, that's all I can say," she said. "More than awesome."