February 5, 2015


Scott Walker learned early lessons at father's Iowa church (Jason Stein, 1/31/15,  Journal Sentinel)

Plainfield, Iowa -- Before Scott Walker stood on a national stage, he crawled beneath the wooden pews and white steeple of First Baptist Church.

His father preached and his mother ran the Sunday school in this Iowa farm town too small to have a stoplight. Growing up in the parsonage next door -- in the shadow of the church -- Walker learned his first lessons in faith, politics and living a life on public display.

His religious upbringing set a course for the governor's later life and may boost his presidential bid among evangelicals in this early caucus state. Just as he did in Des Moines a week ago, Walker will able to talk directly to "values voters" in Iowa, a state where caucusgoers have long leaned toward religious candidates such as Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Jimmy Carter.

Walker is already welcome in this northeast Iowa town, where four decades later some residents hold warm memories of a toddler splayed out on the church floor.

"It was cute to us," remembered Janice Dietz, acknowledging that the young preacher in the pulpit, the Rev. Llew Walker, might not have appreciated the humor as much as his tiny congregation. "You could hear the snickers in the church."

When Scott was 21/2, the Walkers arrived in Plainfield in the summer of 1970, moving from Colorado Springs, Colo., a city of more than 100,000 and a church where Llew served as an assistant pastor. In this community of 430 residents, Llew would head his own congregation and serve on the municipal council and his wife, Pat, would give birth to a second son, David. [...]

The church and parsonage were both a geographic and a social hub in the community.

Living on the main street as the child of a pastor was like growing up in a "fishbowl," as Scott Walker himself would later put it,and it taught the boy to be aware of how others saw him. It was an apt preparation for the future politician who would later relish radio and television interviews and tweeting about meals and other ephemera of his personal life.

"It would be difficult for him or his brother to go anywhere without people knowing him," said the Rev. Shawn Geer, the current pastor at First Baptist.

But if the pastor's sons were closely watched, they could also be indulged by a rural community that cherishes children and loved the preacher and his wife. Joan Marlette's father made the Walker boys a toy wooden barn the size of a doll house, and Pat Walker kept it for decades, mailing it back to Marlette a few years ago.

"I was so pleased she sent that," Marlette said of Pat Walker. "She thought of us instead of just giving it to somebody."

Larry Balsley recalled the reaction of one parishioner who picked up David Walker in a luxury sedan only to have the boy track mud on the seats.

"He said, 'What do you do? It's the preacher's son,'" Larry Balsley said.

None of the children or adults who knew Scott Walker then, including playmates and baby sitters, remembered him as a troublemaker.

Walker is often seen today as a mediocre student who never finished his degree at Marquette University. But Betty Balsley, who served as Walker's third-grade teacher, said he was an "excellent student" in the brick public school that served Plainfield students of every grade.

Balsley said Walker scored well enough on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills that she went down the street from the school to First Baptist to tell his parents about his results.

"He was a mischievous little boy, but he wasn't naughty," she said.

Those around Walker in those years instead remember his interest in Scouting -- he would later become an Eagle Scout -- and in civic life. The interest was natural for a boy whose father served on the municipal council and sometimes talked politics at the dinner table.

Charlie Dietz served with Llew Walker on the Plainfield council, which met in a humble building just down the street from First Baptist.

Dietz remembered that the pastor looked for ways to promote the community, such as replacing the tiny city hall -- a project Plainfield residents couldn't afford until much later. Several people in Plainfield remembered Llew Walker as instrumental in getting affordable housing units built on a site near First Baptist.

Dietz also remembered that though the pastor would eat meals in Plainfield taverns, he did vote no on a liquor license for at least one.

"He would say being a minister, 'I didn't want to vote for it. But I knew it would pass anyway,'" Dietz said.

Like the Milwaukee metro area and Wisconsin in general, Plainfield and the surrounding region of northeastern Iowa aren't one-sided in their politics. Its state senator is a Democrat, its state representative is a Republican. Its current congressman is Republican Rod Blum, who in November won a close race to replace outgoing Democrat Bruce Braley.

"It's more purple than some other parts of Iowa," said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University.

Scott Walker would leave Plainfield in the third grade, but already the family's civic sense was rubbing off on him. Betty Balsley, Joan Marlette and Janice Dietz remembered the boy starting a "Jesus USA Club" to do good deeds and seek donations for a new flag for the Plainfield City Hall.

The Balsley and Dietz families, both particularly close to the Walkers, said they weren't surprised that Walker ended up in politics.

"He would occasionally come up with comments," Betty Balsley said, remembering a boy who took note of the big world beyond Plainfield. "You just had a feeling that he would go to school and do something."

"There was an interest there," her husband Larry added.

Posted by at February 5, 2015 3:52 PM

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