IN MEMORIAM: Craig Walton 1934-2007

Damon Hodge remembers Nevada’s foremost ethicist

Damon Hodge

Before meeting him, I’d only seen Craig Walton in pictures. What stood out most were his round face and bushy, salt-and-pepper hair. Sometimes it was nicely cut. A neatly cropped mustache and beard and sharp gray suit completed the CEO look. In other photos, he was the spitting image of a rumpled professor: rolled-up sleeves, round glasses, seemingly windswept hair. For more than a year, Walton had been undergoing intensive treatment for prostate cancer. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when he answered the door of his home in a far northwest neighborhood several weeks ago.

Walton was shorter than I’d imagined, only 5 feet, 10 inches. At a not-so-svelte 199 pounds, he was the smallest he’d been in years. “I could stand to lose a little more,” he joked. His skin was starchy pale, and he walked with a limp. Walton was halfway through an intensive two-year clinical trial: 37 radiation treatments, six chemotherapy sessions and hormone therapy to reduce his levels of testosterone, on which cancer cells feed. Complications arose somewhere along the line. Lymph nodes were damaged, causing fluid build-up on his right hip. Walking became a chore. A trip to the mailbox left him gassed. Chemo wiped out his sense of taste. His wife, Vera, had to remind him to eat.

The interview was part of a Weekly profile exploring how Walton’s illness was affecting his role as Nevada’s foremost ethicist. Published widely, quoted liberally and esteemed by many (philosophy students to politicians to judges), he’d been the face and voice of ethics reform in a city and state that badly needed it. It was all part of his plan to build “Nevada’s moral infrastructure,” a high-minded goal to upset a culture of political cronyism and eradicate the laws coddling it. He might have had better luck building sand castles in the sky. But Walton believed this could be done, prostate cancer be damned.

“My illness takes away hours [from my work], sure. There’s only so many hours between when I’m awake and function and when I have to lie down,” he told me. “But the ethics work continues. It has to.”

And it will. But without him.

“Craig died this morning,” Vera Walton told me on Tuesday.

Before the political scandals (Operation YOBO in the early ’80s; Airportgate in the late ’90s; G-Sting in this millennium; and, most recently, the buy-a-judge exposes in the LA Times), Walton vociferously championed ethics in government. Before it was fashionable to call for tougher ethics standards, Walton proposed legislation to put teeth in state laws by lowering disclosure limits, placing campaign finance reports online and creating paper ballots at polling stations, among other things. He sat on commissions and hosted town-hall meetings, wrote letters to the editor, castigated the powerful and stuck up for you and me, often when we weren’t even looking. He created UNLV’s ethics and policy studies program in 1987 and, in 2004, established the nonprofit Nevada Center for Public Ethics, a research and policy group.

In short, he was our conscience.

“We are so primitive, and our institutions are so immature. We’re married to the status quo,” Walton told me. “I taught at UNLV for 32 years and was told on more than one occasion we needed to teach more students than we needed to in order to get our numbers up so we could go after more state funding during the next legislative session. Where’s the morality in that? You’ve got department heads who know they don’t have the money to do what they’re supposed to do by law. Yet they’re afraid to ask lawmakers for more money. There are more than 200 members of the American Society of Public Administration in Las Vegas. These people know rules. And yet we still have corruption in government.”

When I told Walton that my story was inspired by the late UNLV history professor Hal Rothman, he smiled. The two had epic jousts about ethics. Rothman died in February from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS destroys the brain’s ability to control muscle function. Our best and most prominent public persona, Rothman was also our de facto publicist, explaining our mercurial city and state to the world. His final days were well-chronicled.

Conversely, many people didn’t even know Walton was sick. “Guess you could say I’ve kept people on a need-to-know basis,” Walton told me.

Though Walton was alive when I talked to them, in death, the words of admirers and former colleagues still ring true.

Bob Loux, executive director of Nevada’s Nuclear Projects Agency, said Walton’s environmental ethics research is being used to fight the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. Walton had challenged federal government proposals for a sliding scale on radiation storage: Standards would be weaker in the future. “Why should people face risks we are not going to face? His work was high-quality.”

County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, who’s served through a handful of political corruption scandals, said of him, “Craig Walton has made many invaluable contributions toward establishing ethical standards for elected officials in Nevada.”

College of Southern Nevada history professor Michael Green met Walton 25 years ago when he was a UNLV student covering a story about Walton for the now-defunct Valley Times. Walton and the Board of Regents were battling over a new faculty code. Christopher Hudgins remembered the tussle. “The code eliminated tenure and gave the president power to compel faculty to get psychiatric help and to choose the psychiatrist,” Hudgins said. An English professor then, he’s now interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “The LA Times did stories and called the code the most repressive in the United States.”

The provisions were removed. The story is classic Walton: Buck the system even if means irking your employers. Walton and Mehran Tamadonfar, chairman of UNLV’s political science department, occasionally butted heads over the direction of the ethics and policy studies program. Walton pressed for activism. Tamadonfar, academics. Walton retired from UNLV in 2004. Tamadonfar gave his former employee all the credit for making the ethics program a priority. “To his credit, Craig was a pioneer of ethics and policy studies in Nevada. He built our program,” Tamadonfar said.

Back at his home, Walton told a story about his house. He started building it in March 1981. At the time he and Vera had only been married six months. They couldn’t afford a new place on their salaries (he was in his ninth year as a UNLV philosophy professor; she taught music at Faith Lutheran Junior-Senior High). Plus, they needed lots of space. This was the second marriage for each. She had four children; he had two. So, on a 1 1/2-acre plot of land near Elkhorn and Jones, Walton channeled his inner Bob Vila. He supervised nearly every aspect of construction on the 3,000-square-foot house: from the French tile to the 22-foot-high ceiling leading to the stairs to securing trees from the state Division of Forestry. In later years, he got the entire 1 1/4-acre lot xeriscaped. Prior to the house, his biggest construction project had been a bookshelf.

The moral of that story seems clear: building the house as metaphor for the patient construction of Nevada’s moral infrastructure. You build a solid structure, attend to the details and keep going. Plopped on a couch, Walton smiled at the memory. He’d come far in his 74 years. Farther than he figured. He studied philosophy after four years in the Navy and taught at the University of Southern California, Northern Illinois University and Emory before coming to UNLV in 1972.

Later that day, over the phone, Vera told me that she was tired. She hated to see a man once so active (a Boy Scout as a child growing up in Southern California; an offensive lineman at Pomona College; an avid outdoorsman) cut down like this. Sometimes she felt sorry for herself. Keeping up with his medical appointments had been tough. One week he had three—for blood tests, blood transfusions and check-ups. Another week, four. He wanted to drive, but she wouldn’t let him. What if he got in an accident?

The children had stepped up, with visits and running errands. One daughter, Ruthie, bought some weights so he could build up his arm strength and had purchased a CD player for Vera. “So I can listen to music while waiting for him at the cancer institute or the hospital.”

In our last conversation before her husband passed, I asked Vera about his personal ethics. They were impeccable, she said. I told her that he once stole something as a kid. It was news to her.

“I stole something from Woolworth’s [in Los Angeles],” Walton had told me. “I don’t know what it was or why I took it. An 8-year-old’s motivations aren’t all that clear. I remember it to this day. It’s a big blot on my conscience.”

Damon Hodge is a Weekly staff writer.

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