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Federal judge from Donora tells Cal U students to make difference

| Tuesday, April 2, 2013, 10:45 a.m.
U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton makes a point while addressing Cal U Men United on the campus of California University fo Pennsylvania, Monday, April 2, 2013.
Dr. Lisa McBride, special assistant to the president for Equal Employment and Educational Opportunity at California University of Pennsylvania, gives federal judge Reggie Walton a hug and a Cal U Men United shirt after the Donora native spoke to the university group Monday, April 1, 2013.

One night, shortly after graduating from high school, Reggie Walton was at the Dairy Delite in Donora with a couple of youths from the projects who had challenged three others to a fight.

But punches led to something more violent as one of Walton's friends pulled out an ice pick and stabbed a man nine times in the back.

“I saw my life flash in front of me,” Walton said. “I did not know if this guy was going to die.”

Walton helped scoop up his former adversary and rush him to Monongahela Valley Hospital. Fortunately, the wounds were not fatal.

It was the wake-up call that helped the Donora native to rethink his life.

On Monday, Walton spoke at a Cal U Men United meeting at California University of Pennsylvania. Walton is a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts recently chose Walton to head the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Walton's message involved achieving success against the odds. It was fitting that his address was sponsored by Cal U Men United.

Cal U Men United was established in 2009 by Dr. Lisa McBride, special assistant to the president for Equal Employment and Educational Opportunity, to combat dismissal graduation rates among students of color.

“Growing up in the Mon Valley, there was no one who looked like me who was using their brains to make a living,” Walton said. “There were no black bosses in the mills. I had no black coaches. I had heard of Paul Simmons, who was practicing law in Monongahela, but I had never met him.”

Simmons went on to become a federal judge in Pittsburgh.

In his youth, Walton intended to use his athletic talents to make a living.

Walton began to change direction as an undergraduate student at West Virginia State College, which was established in 1890 as the West Virginia Colored Institute and for decades existed as a predominately black college.

“College reprogrammed my behavior,” Walton said.

“College was hard, because I had not taken high school seriously.”

However, before he moved on to college, Walton received a stern lesson in the need to change his perspective.

One day, Donora High School teacher and football coach John “Moon” Clark told Walton to turn around his seat and read aloud to his peers. As Walton struggled with the words, some students laughed.

That embarrassment, though, did not hurt as much as Clark's words.

“He said, ‘Reggie, I know you love football, and it's something you think you can make a living at. But you're too small, and it's probably not in the cards for you.'

“Then he said, ‘If you want to be something in life, you have to concentrate on your education.'”

In college, Walton joined the Alphas, a “bookworm” fraternity that included among its alumni civil rights giant Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Walton began to concentrate on his studies. A C-plus student as a freshman, Walton was an honor student by his senior year.

After doing poorly on law entrance exams, Walton graduated at the top of a summer program operated by the Council on Legal Studies. That led to a couple of offers from law schools.

Walton chose the American University Washington School of Law.

Walton said that while attending law school, he ran out of money and survived through sheer will. His diet consisted of Tang powdered orange drink in the morning, a sandwich that a former girlfriend took from the cafeteria at lunchtime and a can of Chef Boyardee pasta or soup for dinner.

“If you want it bad enough, you can have it,” Walton said. “But you have to want it bad enough.”

Walton said he studied 13 to 14 hours a day to master complicated law issues. Upon graduation, he served as a public defender in Philadelphia for a couple of years before becoming a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office.

Walton said his style of fiery closing arguments was based on his childhood in Donora, where he listened to an impassioned minister's sermons in the church located a floor below Walton's apartment in the 500 block of Meldon Avenue.

Walton said America has to “fix the problem of single-parent families.” He said supporting – not producing – a child makes a man.

Walton said strong parenting made him different than many of his childhood friends.

“I had great parents,” Walton said.

“That was my saving grace. I remember my mother constantly telling all three of us that we were going to go to college.”

Walton's brother and sister each obtained a master's degree.

Walton expressed hope that the U.S. Supreme Court does not side with a Texas challenge to Affirmative Action.

“I do make a concerted effort to make sure one of my three law clerks is a minority (person),” Walton said. “It's important to reach back. But I do not hire someone just because they are black.”

Walton said that one day he was standing outside an upscale motel when a man came up to him and told Walton to park his car. When Walton ignored the demand, the man said, “Boy, did you hear me?”

Walton informed the bigot that he was talking to a federal judge.

“I hope one day race is not an issue in America,” Walton said. “But race is still an issue in America.”

Walton offered advice to the students at Cal U on avoiding peer pressure, which leads to questionable decisions.

“The First Amendment gives you the right to free expression, but if I see physical tattoos, you're not getting a job in my office. That's not an image I want in my office,” Walton said.

He said that neither experimental drugs and binge drinking nor the consequences is acceptable.

Walton told the students to get their perspectives in line as they plan their lives.

“Money is nice, but don't let money control your life,” Walton said.

“I would hope all of you would want to make a difference.

“Every day I get up, I feel invigorated knowing I'm making a difference in my world.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or

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