James Calvin "Cal" Walker was a retired Johns Hopkins physics professor and former department chair.
James Calvin "Cal" Walker was a retired Johns Hopkins physics professor and former department chair. (Baltimore Sun)

James Calvin "Cal" Walker, a retired Johns Hopkins physics professor and former department chair, died of congestive heart failure Jan. 15 at Roland Park Place.

The Tuscany-Canterbury resident was 80.


Born in Mooresville, N.C, he was the son of James Clay Walker, a Cannon Mills supervisor, and his wife, Lois Brower.

He was a 1952 graduate of China Grove High School and received a bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard University.

In a 1986 article in The Sun, he recalled his Harvard experience: "At Harvard, there was not quite the sense of just getting by, a lot less of trying to just get the good grade. [There was] an aura of going for the best, and nothing less than the best was good enough for the place."

He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and after graduation, he was awarded a Henry W. Shaw traveling fellowship that allowed him to spend time overseas.

"This enabled him to get out of the country and see the world," said his wife, Ann Finkbeiner, a freelance science writer. "He always spoke of that experience. It set the stage for who he could become."

Family members said Dr. Walker told them he had helped people flee Hungary during an odyssey when he put thousands of miles on a battered car. He drove it into a desert and sold it to a lumber mill operator in North Africa, who salvaged its motor to power a saw.

"He was a risk-taker," said his son, Duncan R. Walker of Baltimore.

He then enrolled at Princeton University and received a doctorate in physics in 1961. He was also awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. In the early 1960s he spent time at Oxford University and worked in the Harwell Innovation and Science Campus in Oxfordshire. He also consulted at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Dr. Walker joined the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University in the middle 1960s after leaving Princeton. He retired from there in 2001 after a career that included six years as chairman of the department of physics and astronomy.

"He would fix you with an intense gaze from under his untamed white hair and rub his hands together in anticipation of the great possibilities that awaited," said Mark Robbins, a friend who is a professor of physics and astronomy.

"Cal was the most positive and enthusiastic person I have had as a colleague or friend," said Professor Robbins. "He was always excited about the next great adventure, whether scientific, aeronautic or visiting with family."

Professor Robbins also said, "This endless energy and enthusiasm was a powerful driving force in the major expansion of our department in the late 80s and was all encompassing, pushing forward all the different fields in the department together."

In 1989, Dr. Walker was a member of the search committee to select a new university president after the tenure of Steven Muller.

"Professor Walker had major impact on the Department of Physics and Astronomy during his time as chair, guiding the department's move to its current home in the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy, and playing a leading role in numerous faculty hires during a time of important growth," said a Hopkins University departmental statement.


In a 1990 Sun article, "Astronomers at Hopkins eager to launch new era," Dr. Walker said of the Hubble Space Telescope: "The instrument guarantees Hopkins an international reputation in astronomy."

In his childhood during World War II, Dr. Walker became obsessed with flying and aircraft. In early trips to England he learned the sport of gliding in motorless aircraft. The Soaring Society of American said that on April 5, 1970, he recorded a Maryland record for a "300-kilometer flying triangle."

"Some of his colleagues and visitors, and most of his Ph.D. students, had the most memorable experience of their lives with Cal in the cockpit," said Dr. Robbins. "He had the ability to walk away unscathed from disasters. He survived several serious glider crashes and a few forced landings with the World War II-vintage Taylorcraft that he had rebuilt with canvas and wood."

Daniel C. Walker of Ann Arbor, Mich., another son, said: "With sailplanes, he was extremely competitive. He was also the luckiest person I have ever known."

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

In addition to his wife of 30 years and two sons, survivors also include a daughter, Kathleen Walker of Tucson, Ariz.; a brother, David Walter of Paris; a sister, Nancy Jones of Colorado Springs, Colo.; and seven grandchildren. A previous marriage ended in divorce.