NEW YORK (JTA) – June Walker was in working mode last week.
On July 21, she presided over a farewell reception for outgoing Israeli U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman. Two days later she led a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which she chaired.
Late in the week, however, tests revealed the cancer she had fought for seven years had advanced too far to allow for a new round of treatment. Walker, of Rockaway, N.J., died Tuesday at 74.
“She was such a remarkable fighter,” said Walker’s rabbi, Amy Joy Small. “She did not let it stop her. She had things to do.”
Walker, a former president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, became only the second woman to lead the conference last year when she replaced investment banker Harold Tanner as chairperson.
“Leaders of the United States and Israel held her in high regard and respected the person even more than the positions she held,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the Presidents Conference’s executive vice chairman, in a statement. “They, as we, recognized immediately her integrity, her intelligence and the sincerity of her advocacy. I am personally, as is the conference collectively, devastated by her passing.”
Walker’s nomination in April 2007 as chairperson was something of a departure for the Presidents Conference, the main communal umbrella body on foreign policy, which in recent years has been headed by prominent businessmen.
A respiratory therapist, former college professor and health-care administrator, Walker was a longtime community activist whose involvement with Hadassah began as a teenager.
In June, Walker was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa in recognition of her years of work on behalf of Israel, and in particular her devotion to health care in the Jewish state. Walker was one of seven honorees, including a former director of the Mossad intelligence agency and three university professors, but was chosen to deliver remarks on behalf of the group.
“She told me that she was determined she was going to be strong and healthy to get to Haifa and receive this award because it was for her symbolic of her lifetime achievement, something that represented for her a culmination of her accomplishments,” said Small, who accompanied Walker to Israel for the ceremony.
Small recalled that the honorees were to walk across a balcony and down a flight of stairs, a feat that she knew would be challenging for Walker, who was suffering back and leg pain as a result of her disease.
“She held herself with such dignity and such honor you would never have known that she was suffering,” Small recalled. “And she was beaming.”
Later, Small wrote that Walker was “this generation’s Golda Meir” in an article published on the Web site of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.
Walker rose through a succession of positions at Hadassah before assuming the presidency in 2003, a post she held for four years. Under her leadership, the organization raised $75 million for a $210 million inpatient tower at its hospital at Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, and completed a $48 million emergency medicine facility in Jerusalem.
She also grew the student body at the Hadassah College of Technology in Jerusalem from 600 to 2,000 students.
“It is with a very heavy heart that we begin to mourn June Walker, a unique leader and a wonderful friend to many,” said Walker’s successor as Hadassah president, Nancy Falchuk. “June once said that Hadassah embodied everything she was interested in: Israel, women’s empowerment, Judaism, education, medicine and Zionism. But June personified values that Hadassah stands for: pride, dedication, and spirit enhanced by her own personal grit.”
Walker was the first Presidents Conference chairperson to die in office. The group says it has no succession plan.
“We’ve never had it,” Hoenlein told JTA, adding that when top officials have become incapacitated in the past, former chairmen have temporarily stepped in.
Walker taught at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey and was the director of inservice education for pulmonary medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. She is also a member of the Citizens Committee for Bio-Medical Ethics, the American Lung Association and the Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Hatikvah of Summit, N.J., according to her official Hadassah biography.
She is survived by her husband, Barrett; a son, David Walker; two daughters, Ellen Walker and Julie Richman; and six grandchildren. The funeral is scheduled for Thursday at Beth Hatikvah.