By Emily J. Minor
There are people you like and people you love.
And then there are people like Manalapan Police Chief Clay Walker — the kind you’d pretty much like to clone.
“He’s not just doing this because it’s the law,” said Joan Gindlesperger, who 25 years ago started the Deaf Service Center of Palm Beach County. “He’s doing this because he cares.”
Walker, a Clewiston boy and fourth-generation Floridian, recently sat at a nice luncheon and accepted a nice plaque from the Deaf Service Center. For years, he’s helped working police officers throughout Florida understand the nuances and challenges, complexities and struggles of being deaf or hard of hearing.
And while the plaque is lovely — indeed, it’s the only one in his office that says “I love you” in American Sign Language — it’s the work that led him here that has been so fantastic for Walker, his officers and the people he’s met along the way.
“I’m the kind of guy who likes to get things done,” he says.
Elinor Eastman knows all about this.
Walker, 53, was a lieutenant at the North Palm Beach Police Department and the guy in charge of the department’s communication system when Eastman, who is deaf, dialed 911 one night back in 1990.
Her 91-year-old father-in-law had fallen out of bed and she could not lift him. Eastman knew she wouldn’t be able to communicate with the emergency operator, but she had no other choice.
And she was right. The operators hung up, but because those were the early days of “enhanced 911,” a parade of emergency workers soon arrived at her door. The dispatch team could tell her address from the incoming call.
“They sent everyone over here, even though I hadn’t talked to them,” she said.
The very next day, Lt. Clay Walker introduced himself.
The department had just received boxes of TDD equipment — telecommunications devices for the deaf. And it was all just sitting there at the North Palm station.
“I had all this equipment, and I needed a deaf person to help me figure it out,” Walker said.
Elinor Eastman turned out to be his go-to girl.
In the months and years that followed, Eastman would call dispatch on her TDD machine and teach rescue operators how to respond quickly and comfortably. At first, they’d hold conversations about pretend problems. But eventually, Eastman would call and the dispatchers would know who she was and they’d talk about television shows and family, children and husbands, holidays and recipes.
Each night after she’d call, the dispatchers would take the paper tape of their conversation and clip it to their paperwork from that shift.
“We used to talk to Elinor by the foot,” Walker said. “She took this technology and she made us fearless of it.”
Eastman, now 73 and a widow, still calls there sometimes, just to “keep them on their feet,” she says.
Walker eventually moved on to take the job in Manalapan in 1999, but his devotion to deaf services has continued.
He holds officer training days, sometimes even setting up a car full of deaf people for his officers to pull over. Then he sees how long it takes for them to figure it out. He preaches deaf services to judges, lawyers, social service advocates and other chiefs around the nation. And he’s just now finishing up a video series that will be given to all law enforcement in Florida.
It’s a training DVD with a paper operator’s manual showing law enforcement how to handle deaf drivers, deaf witnesses, deaf victims of crime.
For Walker, it’s something he started because if felt right.
For Elinor Eastman and Joan Gindlesperger, it’s something he continued because the Manalapan chief wears a suit of shining armor.
“I wish every city in every county in every state had a Clay Walker,” Gindlesperger said.
“I loved him from the start,” Eastman said.
But she does have this one tiny little bone to pick with him.
Years ago, when Elinor Eastman tried to teach Clay Walker sign language, he really wasn’t that great of a student.
“He just remembered the signs for all the bad words,” she said recently. “You know how guys are.”