“Let’s be clear about this – I’m not a hero. Don’t make me sound like something I’m not. I simply serve our community and do what I can to help.”
Those were my marching (writing) orders from Mark Walker, a 16-year volunteer for Knox County Rescue (KCR), a man who, when recounting rescue and recoveries from years ago, had to stop talking from being choked up.
At 62, he’s older than most of the men and women he works beside. He is Lt. Walker at KCR, No. 2 man on the Cave and Vertical Rescue Team. He’s also a senior diver on KCR dive team and a swift-water rescue technician for the Water Rescue Team. Walker also is an emergency medical responder on the rescue trucks.
There’s more in his volunteer portfolio. He is an American Red Cross volunteer, which in the past provided emergency medical care at University of Tennessee football games, and is a volunteer with the Blount County Rescue Squad.
There is another side to Mark Walker, too. He describes that guy as a “geek” and a “nerd” who owns Walker Validation and Compliance Services. For 25 years he has been a consultant for a number of medical device companies, both here and abroad. Without getting into the computer weeds, he works to assure the U.S. Food & Drug Administration that the software that makes all types of medical devices work properly is, well, working properly.
Walker was born in Memphis, attended David Lipscomb on a tennis scholarship but earned his undergraduate degree in business administration from Tusculum College. He also has an associate degree in chemical engineering from what then was the State Technical Institute at Knoxville and is now Pellissippi State.
His other “jobs” he delights in is being Jyl’s husband of 32 years and grandfather to their seven “grands.” Jyl is a precious metals jewelry designer and a Marine and Vietnam Era veteran.
Mark Walker came to Knoxville in 1978 and never left. “Fell in love with this place and I’m a Tennessee Volunteer through and through,” he says.
His first brush with emergency services work came at the 1982 World’s Fair. Walker was a shift supervisor for the fair’s security officers. He had 65 guards who worked the afternoon-evening shifts. “When President Reagan came to the fair I had to work closely with the KPD and the fire department, the FBI and the Secret Service. It’s the most fun job I’ve ever had.”
And during those six months of the fair, he met the late KCR Capt. John Yu down on the Tennessee River. Yu headed up the River Rescue Team. That’s when Walker got the bug for diving. It took a while, but in 2004 he joined KCR.
This servant is deeply committed to his KCR work and what it means. “If I could make this work, I would do it full time,” he says. “There’s so much good that I get from it. I want to tell others about my experiences and how important Knox County Rescue really is. We get trained to do things the right way, to keep us safe and make us more effective in serving the community.”
He vividly remembers the five-day search for a 7-year-old boy who fell off a raft at a quarry off Blount Avenue. A camera found him at a depth of 214 feet. “We spent five days working with the team to find him. It really got to me and still does today.” … and that was all he could say as the tears came.
The same thing happened a few minutes later when he talked about a teenager who jumped off a cliff, hitting his head and drowning near the Duncan Boat Dock Marina on the Tennessee River. It took only an hour to find the young man. That memory led to tears.
His work in Blount County is very interesting. April to October is the season when cars and motorcycles from everywhere flock to the “The Dragon” – a dangerous stretch of 11-miles with 314 turns and curves. Since 2000, 37 people have died there. Blount County Rescue spaces rescue personnel along the Dragon to minimize response times to accidents. He’s part of that team.
He makes sure to stay in shape – swimming, cycling, tennis, kayaking, hiking and some golf.
How much longer will he be at KCR? “I love it here, if you’re willing to give your time. But my answer is as long as I can, as long as my body holds up, and I know it gets more dangerous as you get older. But I’m not there yet. I love serving our community. It’s as simple as that.”
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. He writes this Monday column – Our Town Heroes –for KnoxTNToday.com. Suggest future stories at email@example.com or call him at 865-659-3562.