Jack Walker marks 50 years in real estate—‘a decent run’Apr 08, 2021 02:30PM ● By Rod Lee
Mr. Walker at a desk he has turned over to Patty Palmer as she takes ownership of the real estate agency he started in 1971. He is still working part-time from an adjoining office.
Much has changed since Jack Walker opened his real estate business in Whitinsville on April 1, 1971.
He is older now, of course. His hair has thinned and is white as a bar of Ivory soap.
The town of Northbridge has grown. New housing tracts have sprung up including an over-55 currently under construction on a hill off Church St. A new high school came along. A new fire station is in the works.
Buildable land for residential is scarcer these days. Streets with new names—Eben Chamberlain Road, Eisenhower Drive, Jefferson Ave.—have appeared.
Property values are much higher than they were when Jack Walker started. “If you spent $25,000 for a home in Whitinsville you were in the upper echelon and there were no developers to speak of,” he says.
Today, the downtown Whitinsville commercial corridor is a shadow of the thriving sector he knew as a kid attending St. Pat’s School in town (and then St. Mary’s in Milford). In those days, he recalls, Whitin Machine Works paid in cash “and people went downtown and paid their electric bill at Buffum’s and their gas bill at Western Auto and there was a movie theater and a couple of Northbridge police officers would walk the street and if you had one too many they would drive you home.
“I can remember guys from Whitin Machine Works with baskets in their hands picking up trash. Heat for the Community Center went under the road from the factory to [the Gym].
“Back then, people didn’t have charge accounts, in the 1950s.”
Real estate “was easy,” he says. “Today, you don’t sign one paper, it’s like this”—and he holds his hands widely apart.
The Whitin Machine Works influence was huge. “In those houses, if you needed kindling wood, they delivered it,” Mr. Walker says.
So it goes; 2021 is a long way from 1971.
One of the constants amid the flux is Mr. Walker himself.
In a community with a population of 16,732 (2018 census), it would be hard to find a more mercurial personality, someone “who talks fast and moves fast” as he puts it, who is so full of ebullience and energy, who has enjoyed such staying power in his profession, who so relishes the sheer joy of interacting with people, in this, Jack Walker’s 50th-anniversary year as a realtor and appraiser.
He built his company the old-fashioned way, with hard work and a heavy reliance on his considerable conversational skills.
“I didn’t have two nickels to rub together when I started out,” he said on March 26th in the office he shares with long-time assistant Patty Palmer at 95 Church St.—the former “Dr. Roberts house,” which directly abuts the smaller building he operated from before that.
He seems to have born with an abundance of infectious enthusiasm, a knack for engagement and a genuine interest in people he meets. These characteristics have not diminished one iota over time.
Neither has his approach to his work.
“I would go to the diner (Peg’s, at 87 Church St.) for my coffee, and chit chat; then the post office, and chit chat; then Whitinsville Savings Bank, and chit chat,” Mr. Walker said, over lunch at New England Steak & Seafood in Mendon the day before (March 25th). “All business was tied in” to that daily circuit—a routine that served him well in acquiring contacts, establishing lasting relationships and generating sales.
“I was it. There just wasn’t a lot of competition.”
Through his real estate business, his involvement with Rotary Club, Pine Grove Cemetery, the Whitinsville Social Library and the Northbridge Historical Society, he is a walking, talking authority on all things Northbridge.
At any given moment he is liable to drop names of family and friends dear to his heart, like the late Bob Alix, who worked for Mr. Walker for a while.
“He and I grew up in town, our dads both worked for Whitin Machine Works, Bob was a very good broker,” Mr. Walker said. “He had his own pharmacy in Uxbridge, Spartan Drug. He came to me and said ‘I’d like to work for you part-time.’ I jumped at the opportunity to hire him.”
Mr. Walker was also quick to hire Patty Palmer (a White and a sister of Northbridge’s current fire chief, Dave White), who has been with Mr. Walker’s company for thirty-eight years, initially in a secretarial capacity. “One of the best things I ever did,” he says.
Mr. Walker and Ms. Palmer have in fact “reversed positions,” he says. He is now working for her part-time, in what he describes as “a transition in process”—her acquisition of the business.
The many people who have helped him along the way come up often, when he reminisces.
He speaks affectionately of his parents, his brother Kevin and his sister Maggie.
“My dad always said ‘Jack, there’s no free lunch. Someone has to write the check.’ My mom was a great person. I owe her a lot. Being a teacher, the flag was everything to her. She would tell me ‘they won’t be satisfied until they take God out of everything—and then watch out.’ When they were talking about a new high school she said ‘Jack, you have to vote for this.’”
Friends have included Chiropractor Louis Amantea. “We built that building (on Providence Road) together,” Mr. Walker says. Barry Smith (“Coach Smith’s son). James M. “Jim” Knott Sr. and his wife Betty, both now deceased (“Jim poured so much money into that mill, the Kupfer,” he says, of Riverdale Mills). Jim Knott Jr. Carol Brouwer of the Historical Society. Doug Carr, whose mother Nora started the Historical Society fifty years ago this year. Dr. Howard Gottlieb. Jeff Allard.
Anyone who knows Jack Walker would say he is a throwback to yesteryear: a man who has one foot in the genteel society of the financial district and the other in the world of everyday. He dresses well. “I started out in diapers, then shorts, then chinos and then Brooks Brothers—no dungarees!,” he says. He patronizes the finest restaurants, the Quirk family’s New England Steak & Seafood being one of his favorites. There have been so many. The Cocke ‘n Kettle. The Victorian. The Wayside Inn. Ken’s on Rt. 9 in Framingham. The Coach & Six on West Boylston St. in Worcester. The Pillar House in Lower Newton Falls. The Ritz-Carlton street bar. “They’re all kind of gone,” he says of some of these.
Jack Walker is keenly aware that his real estate career is winding down.
“My wife (Karen) and I are going through stuff, we have so much,” he says. “We used to entertain a lot then the young people came along and they don’t want to polish silver. They want to put stuff in the dishwasher and hit a button.”
He looks at today’s changing world and the changing nature of the real estate business with a bit of disappointment. “A lot of people are overpaying. Listings are hard to get. As soon as it’s on the market it’s gone. A lot of buyers today are cash buyers, no appraisal is ever done. But sooner or later there is a correction. Death. Job transfer. Divorce. These always happen.
“The town at this stage is pretty well built out.”
He is adapting, while holding onto the high standards he has always maintained.
“It’s been a decent run,” Mr. Walker says. “Last year I was afraid to go out” (because of the pandemic). “I was running around with bags of Lysol in my car.”
He says “I can’t complain.” Whitinsville, and Northbridge, still have “a small-town identity and we like that.”
Karen Walker’s “honey-do” lists “are getting longer and longer,” he says, laughing. “She leaves them on the nightstand or at the breakfast table.”
Contact Rod Lee at [email protected]