Johnnie Mac Walters known for courage in Watergate crisis

The Greenville NewsJuly 3, 2014 

THE GREENVILLE NEWS

He was a man who carried an Index card in his shirt pocket to remind him of all he needed to accomplish each day.

A gentleman of the old school, he opened car doors for women and pulled out chairs for them to sit down.

And when the president of the United States gave him an enemies list and directed that the IRS collect dirt on them through their tax returns, he refused.

"He had the courage to speak the truth to power," said Jim Pitts, the retired chaplain of Furman University and longtime friend of Johnnie Mac Walters, who died Tuesday night at the age of 94.

Walters' famous refusal came in the aftermath of the arrests in June 1972 of five men caught trying to bug the office of the National Democratic Party in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C.

Three months after the break-in and before anyone knew the extent that it was tied to President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign, White House counsel John Dean handed Walters, commissioner of the IRS, a list with the names of 200 Democrats and asked him to find information about them and "not cause ripples."

Walters took the list, obtained Treasury Secretary George Shultz's permission to do nothing, and locked it in his safe in the IRS headquarters.

Writing in his memoir "Our Journey," Walters said, "By refusing to implement the request we preserved our tax system and also kept me out of jail."

Johnnie McKeiver Walters was born in 1919 in Lydia, a small town outside Hartsville in South Carolina's Pee Dee region. His family lived in what was once a sharecropper's house without electricity and running water. When he arrived at Furman University in 1938, he had a $75 scholarship toward the $600-a- year tuition and $3.62 in his pocket.

He took on various jobs to support himself, earned a pilot's license, majored in economics and, when the United States entered World War II, he joined the Army Air Corps. He flew 53 missions in Europe as a navigator and left the service as a first lieutenant.

He enrolled in the University of Michigan Law School after first-choice Harvard insisted he take an exam for admission. On his first day on campus in Ann Arbor, he met the woman who would become his wife, Donna Hall, despite the admonishment of a friend's mother that he not come back with a Yankee wife.

Turnabout is fair play, and Hall's father didn't like Southerners. The two were married for 66 years.

Walters went to work in the chief counsel's office in the IRS in Washington, D.C., for five years, moved to New York to work as a tax attorney for Texaco, then he and Donna moved to Greenville. They had four children -- Dee Dee, Betsy, Hilton and John Roy -- and he had no clients.

He says in his memoir it was a bold decision to open a tax firm in a city where he didn't know many people, and in the first few months he brought in only $362. Things got better, and he had a wealth of clients by the time he was asked to go back to Washington as an assistant U.S. attorney general in the tax division. Three years later he was named commissioner of the IRS.

Walters said when given the enemies list, he told Dean taking action against the people on the list would "make Watergate look like a Sunday School picnic."

In the Nixon tapes that have come out in recent years, Nixon is heard saying, "The IRS must be used even if we've got to kick Walters' ass out first and get a man down there." Nixon also suggested sneaking in in the middle of the night to get the information.

Walters resigned as IRS commissioner in 1973, worked at a law firm in Richmond for five years, then moved back to Greenville to join the Leatherwood Walker Todd and Mann law firm. He joined Colonial Trust in 1995.

Barbara Weatherford, who worked as Walters' assistant at Colonial Trust in Greenville for almost 20 years, said she didn't know her boss's connection to Nixon until she was asked to go through some of his papers. She said she never heard him say an unkind word about Nixon.

That, she said, sums up who he was at heart.

"He was like a second father to me," she said.

He always had time for people who had tax problems and to help her with a will, she said. He and Donna and several other couples went out to eat every Thursday night and sometimes went back to the Walterses' home on North Main to play the piano and sing.

The Walterses were members of First Baptist Greenville and members of the Seminar Sunday School class, which Pitts and two others teach.

Pitts said he got to know Mac Walters through his father, Milton Pitts, who was a longtime White House barber.

"He was gracious. He was real. He was present," Pitts said. "His favorite hymn was not How Great I Art."

He cared for Donna at the Woodlands at Furman until a little over a year ago when friends convinced him she needed to go to the Memory Care unit.

Walters had been bedridden for about a week but was aware of the people around him. Weatherford was with him when he died. He had heard from one of his four children moments before and was assured the children would take care of their mother.

"He closed his eyes and he was gone," Weatherford said, "It was really a God thing."

In his memoir, Walters wrote, "We have enjoyed the journey. We intend to keep smiling, laughing and flying the flag high."

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