Red Bandana Fund to Recognize Henry Shelton and Providence Student Union

Published June 6, 2014

In just two days, look for the gathering of friends, Rhode Island College educators, progressives, folkies and family members of the late Richard J. Walton, who come to the Red Bandana Award to pay homage and remember him. With his prominent long white beard and red bandana, decked out in blue jean overalls and wearing a baseball cap, Walton was a dedicated advocate of worker rights and committed to the nurturing of young people as a college professor at Rhode Island College. He gave hundreds of hours of service every month to organizations including Amos House, the George Wiley Center, Providence Niquinhomo Sister City Project, the Green Party, and Stone Soup Folk Arts Foundation.

The Red Bandana Fund was also created to be a legacy to help sustain Rhode Island’s community of individuals and organizations that embody the lifelong peace and justice ideas of Walton. Through the Red Bandana Fund, an annual financial award will be made to an organization or individual whose work best represents the ideals of peace and social justice that exemplify Walton’s life work

Stephen Graham, a member of committee organizing the fundraiser, noted that 12 nominations received. “There were many deserving nominations, all of which one could make an excellent argument for the award,” he said.

“After much deliberation and agonizing, the Red Bandana Fund decided to give not one but two awards,” noted Graham.  “Awards will be given to longtime community activist and hell-raiser, Henry Shelton, and the other to the passionate, unrelenting organizing workers called the Providence Student Union (PSU),” he says, noting that their work embodies the spirit and work of Walton, a well-known social activist in the Rhode Island area who died in 2012.

“Richard would have loved the choices,” noted Graham, a very close friend of Walton’s and a retired community activist.

The Red Bandana Fund celebration takes place on Sunday, June 8 at Nick-a-Nees, 75 South Street. In Providence from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. The event is open to the public and donations accepted.

Shelton, a former Catholic priest and long-time director of the Pawtucket-based George Wiley Center, is known throughout the region for his steadfast commitment to bettering the lives of all Rhode Islanders, especially the poor and disadvantaged. As a longtime advocate for the needy, he has been a fixture on the streets and at the statehouse for decades, advocating for fairness in housing, public transportation, and medical care.

“It is not an understatement to say that Shelton is the conscience of this state and has been for a long, long time,” says Graham, noting that there was no way Shelton could be ignored.

The committee also honored a new generation of young people working to make a better world, added Graham. So, the Red Bandana Fund also recognizes the PSU for its groundbreaking work done in addressing important issues of education in creative and powerful ways. The PSU is an important voice in the debate over the value of high-stakes testing, challenging the NECAP tests as a requirement for graduation, and has forced officials and politicians to address their concerns, he said.

“It is their commitment to grass-roots organizing and social change, at such a young age, that has earned them the recognition and thanks of the Red Bandana Fund and for all those fighting for justice in today’s society,” says Graham.

Coming up with a name for Walton’s fundraiser was tied to his unique fashion sense and was the idea of his daughter Cathy Barnard and Richard, her brother. Like most people, Richard had a vivid, visual image of his father, who had long white hair and beard, being known for wearing his trademark worn blue jean overalls, a red bandana and Stone Soup baseball cap. After Walton died his close friends came over to his house and wanted one of his red bandanas to remember him. Thus, the red bandana became the perfect moniker and recognition for the annual fundraiser.

Says Bill Harley, also on the organizing committee, The Red Bandana Fund is a continuation of Walton’s tradition of having an annual birthday bash – usually held the first Sunday in June, to raise money for Amos House & the Providence-Niquinohomo Sister City Project and other progressive causes.

Over 24 years, Walton had raised over $40,000 for these favorite charities, attracting hundreds of people each year including the state’s powerful political and media elite to his family compound located at Pawtuxet Cove in Warwick

“We hope all the people who attended Richard’s parties in the past [1988 to 2011] will show up for the event and you can bring your favorite dish for the potluck,” adds Harley.

“This is our second year giving the award,” said Bill Harley, a member of the selection committee. “We chose the awardees from a great list of nominations, and decided to acknowledge both young organizers, and one of our long-time heroes. Too often, the people who are in the trenches working for us don’t get recognized. We hope the Award begins to address that shortcoming.”

According to Graham, “last year’s event was more of a concert and tribute to Walton.” Over 300 people attended the inaugural Red Bandana fundraising event in 2013 at Shea High School, raising more than $11,000 from ticket sales, a silent auction and raffle. At this event, the first recipient, Amos House, received a $1,000, he said.

Graham says the well-known nonprofit was chosen because of its very long relationship with Walton. He was a founding board member, serving for over 30 years, being board chair for a number of years. For almost three decades, the homeless advocate spent an overnight shift with the men who lived in the 90-Day Shelter Program each Thursday bringing them milk and cookies. Each Friday morning he would make pancakes and eggs in the soup kitchen for hundreds of men and women who came to eat a hot meal.

As to getting this year’s Red Bandana Fund off the ground, Harley says: “It’s been a year of fits and starts to make this thing work. I believe that the establishment of this award, and the honoring of people on a yearly basis, will help us build a community here that can transform our culture. It’s a little thing down the road, I can envision this award meaning more and more to recipients, and to the community those recipients come from.”
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Walton touched people’s lives, Rick Wahlberg, one of the organizers. “Everyone had such an interesting story to tell about Richard,” he stated, noting that the Warwick resident, known as a social activist, educator, humanitarian, very prolific writer, and a co-founder of Pawtucket’s Stone Soup Coffee House “had made everyone feel that they themselves had a very special, close relationship with him.”

Like last year’s inaugural event, Wahlberg expects to see many of Walton’s friends at the upcoming June 8th fundraiser. He and others attending will view this event as a “gathering of the clan” since those attending will be Walton’s extended Rhode Island family.

So, block out some time on your busy Sunday. Come to the Red Bandana Fund event to remember our good old friend, Richard Walton, and support his legacy and positive impact in making Rhode Island a better place to live and work. Enjoy the gathering of caring people who come to recognize the advocacy efforts of Shelton and the PSU to carry on Walton’s work.

Spread the word.

Core participants in organizing this year’s Red Bandana Fund include, Bill Harley, Stephen Graham, Jane Falvey, Barbara & Rick Wahlberg. Other participants included Jane Murphy, Jodi Glass, Cathy Barnard and Richard Walton, Jr.

For more information about donating to The Red Bandana Fund, go to http://www.soup.org/page1/RedBandana.html.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com

Activist Richard J. Walton’s Great Adventure in Life and Death

Published January 4, 2013, Pawtucket Times

Throughout his 84 years, Richard J. Walton served as a role model for generations of activists, watching out and protecting Rhode Island’s voiceless citizens, showing all that positive societal changes could be made by making sound arguments. With his last breath, he even taught us how to face death.

Walton, age 84, died on December 27 at Rhode Island Hospital. He had been treated for leukemia for about six months, says daughter, Cathy Walton Barnard, of Simsbury, Connecticut, who noted his last words, “I’m going on a great adventure.”

Walton Touched Many Lives

Even with many in Walton’s vast progressive and activist networks knowing about his illness, people were caught off guard by his sudden passing one week ago, stated Rick Wahlberg, a computer consultant and a former president of Stone Soup Coffee House, who worked closely with Walton on the nonprofit’s Board of Directors for over 20 years and developed close personal ties. “We considered him part of our family just like many others did,” he said. .

According to Wahlberg, a Cumberland resident, Walton was part of New York’s intelligentsia scene, [mingling with writers at the Lion’s Head, a bar a few steps down from Christopher Street] in Greenwich Village, where he lived making a living as a writer.

Wahlberg viewed Walton as a “great example of morality, humanity and a supporter of nonviolence,” noting that his friend led an amazing life that help shaped his progressive point of view and that of his two daughters. When his oldest daughter, Corinne, heard of Walton’s passing, she remarked, “he did more in one lifetime than most.”

Over the years, Wahlberg, 59, and his wife, Barbara, attended Walton’s birthday parties that would raise large sums of money for his favorite charities, attracting the state’s powerful political and media elite right to his family compound, located at Pawtuxet Cove in Warwick. This legendary fundraising event occurred from 1988 to 2011, bringing hundreds of people each year to celebrate his progressive causes. Due to his health in 2012, for the first time, Walton’s birthday was held at the Roots Cultural Center in Providence.

Joyce Katzberg, 59, folksinger and a founding organizer of Stone Soup Coffee House, spent decades protesting with Walton at vigils, rallies and picket lines. She remembers him as a kind, honest person. When necessary, he was not afraid of using the “F word,” she quipped, noting that this word stood for fascism. His social advocacy “has left many ripples and impacted many Rhode Island nonprofits,” she adds.

“Richard called things for what they were, said things in ways that were hard to argue with because he had the facts, knew the background stories and did his home work. He cared enough to tell the truth,” said Katzberg, stressing how he excelled at moderating views between people with differing positions.

Bruce McCrae (a.k.a. Rudy Cheeks), a co-author of Phillip and Jorge column in the weekly Providence Phoenix, who knew Walton for over 30 years as a social activist, educator and a strong advocate for traditional American Folk music, had his thoughts about his recent passing. “There is no doubt in my mind that Rhode Island would have been a much different and poorer place without his constant presence. He was a mentor to generations of students and social activists and one of the strongest voices for peace and equality that Rhode Island has ever known,” he said.

McCrae, 62, says his efforts for social change extended internationally to Africa where, in 1960, he worked on a number of documentary films on the emerging independence movements on that continent and to Latin America, where he started the Sister Cities Project between Providence and Niquinohomo, Nicaragua, helping to build a medical facility and school there.

One of the City of Pawtucket’s most visible social advocates, Maggi Burns Rogers, remembers Walton as someone who worked hard to improve the world without forgetting how to enjoy it. “He loved to laugh, eat, drink, was an avid gardener, knew his music, read literature and even traveled the world.” (In between his social activism, teaching and writing, during his long life Walton traveled to over 50 countries, making return trips to many of them.),

“Richard won’t be remembered for just one thing because he brought his talent to so many different nonprofits,” says Rogers, including Amos House, the George Wiley Center, Stone Soup Coffee House, Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, and the Pawtucket Arts Festival Executive Committee to name just a few.

With his long white beard, President Betsy Florin, of the Pawtucket-based George Wiley Center, viewed Walton as a Santa Claus-like figure. But unlike Santa, he gave every day of the year, all of his life, she said. “His real gift was not something tangible that could be wrapped in a pretty box and placed under a tree, it was, rather a gift of imagination combined with activism.”

Walton “imagined a world of decency and fairness and then sought to make that happen,” said Florin.

As to Walton’s daughter, Barnard, 52, even in her earliest childhood memories she remembers her father as being an activist, who once marched with his young daughter at a gay pride parade. While not being an activist to “his degree” the Preschool teacher is very politically active in her local community.

Today, Barnard is a diehard New York Mets fan. When Barnard and her brother visited their father in New York, he often took them to watch the team play at Shea Stadium. (As noted in an Op Ed penned by Walton in 2000, throughout his life Walton’s favorite baseball player and hero was Hank Greenberg, a Jewish baseball player who played in the major leagues in the 1930s and 1940s, primarily for the Detroit Tigers. He was considered to be one of the premier power hitters of his generation. Walton noted that Greenberg, who experienced anti Semitism, would encourage another player subject to slurs from the sidelines, that was Jackie Robinson.)

Six Lifetimes Jammed into One

Walton’s life is richly detailed in Wikipedia, a web-based free content encyclopedia.

Born in Saratoga Springs, New York, Walton grew up in South Providence in the 1930s, graduating from Classical High School in 1945. After taking a two year break from his studies at Brown University, serving as a journalist mate in the U.S. Navy, he returned to receive a bachelor’s degree in 1951. He whet his appetite for music by working as disc jockey at Providence radio station WICE before enrolling in Columbia School of Journalism where he later earned a masters in journalism degree in 1955.

Walton’s training at Brown University and the School of Journalism at Columbia propelled him into a writing career. During his early years he worked as a reporter at the Providence Journal, and the New York World Telegram and Sun. At Voice of America in Washington, D.C., Walton would initially put in time reporting on African issues, ultimately being assigned to cover the United Nations.

The prolific writer would eventually publish 12 books, nine being written as critical assessments of U.S. Foreign policy. In the late 1960s, as a freelance writer, he made his living by writing for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Village Voice, Newsday, The [old] New Republic, Cosmopolitan, even Playboy. He was also the former UN Secretary-General U Thant’s personal editor for his memoir, “The View from the United Nations.”

In 1981, after 26 years of living outside of Rhode Island, he would return, ultimately becoming one of the most recognizable social activists around, fighting against hunger, homelessness and poverty. The journalist would run for political office and was active in the Citizens Party [the predecessor to the Green Party]. He ran as the political group’s vice presidential candidate in 1984 with the radical feminist Sonia Johnson. They did not win.

For over 25 years, Walton has taught writing to thousands of students at Rhode Island College (RIC). Walton fought to successfully establish a union at this university, hammering out a contract, ultimately serving as its first president until his death. With his death, RIC President Nancy Carriuolo called for lowering the flags on campus to half-staff in his memory.

Walton was married to Margaret Hilton and Mary Una Jones, both marriages ending in divorce. He is survived by his daughter Cathy Walton Barnard and son Richard Walton and three grandchildren.

Big Shoes to Fill

Walton, with his long white hair and beard, wearing his trademark blue overalls, bandana and Stone Soup baseball cap, serves as a role model to the younger generations of social activists, those who will take up his worthy causes to fight for justice, to end poverty, hunger, and homelessness. He taught us how to live life to the fullest, exploring the world while not forgetting to help those in need.

Walton’s life turned out to be a grand adventure. But even with death approaching he taught us to take that leap of faith into the unknown, recognizing that death, too, can be and even grander adventure.

The family is planning a memorial service to be held the first weekend in June.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers health care, aging and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.