Walter Isaacs was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 27, 1909, and was raised in a large family of nine children. His parents came from Antigua, arriving in Cambridge around the turn of the 20th century. The young Walter’s role as a leader and motivator began during his days as a student at Rindge Technical School, Cambridge. There in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s he built a strong foundation in sports: he was captain of the basketball team and played on the varsity baseball team.
In 1933, he started his family by marrying Alice Willis. Alice and Walter had known each other since early childhood, but had never considered each other as more than friends until high school. They moved to West Medford together in 1934. This African American community was restricted to three streets-Lincoln Street, Jerome Street, and one side of Arlington Street-due to racial discrimination amongst realtors renting property at that time. Yet despite segregation and economic constraints, people like Walter and Alice Isaacs helped to make this a strong, nurturing community.
Before he was married Walter Isaacs worked for a woman in Boston who made hats, and would sometimes bring hats home for Alice. Shortly after that, he worked at the Watertown Arsenal during World War II. Then he settled down and worked in a corrugated box factory, where he remained for over 30 years and eventually became a leader in the Union.
At home in West Medford, Mr. Isaacs was one of those who helped build and maintain a living, flourishing neighborhood by caring for others. One example is the part he played in constructing the West Medford Community Center. In 1933, he and other community leaders carried a World War II Quonset Hut to West Medford’s Dugger Park section by section, and assembled it. Over the years this Community Center became a place where several generations of children and adults would go to take part in neighborhood activities.
But above all, sports were the tool that Walter Isaacs used to empower and motivate the youth of West Medford. Starting in the 1930s, he coached children and youth in baseball, tennis, and bowling. His emphasis on persistence and working together guided young people through hard times and encouraged them to achieve more. Horace Works was a youth in Mr. Isaacs’ teams, and remembers when the baseball team lost 25 games in a season: “It was a group of young men and we started a team… We weren’t any good; we were bad. We lost 25 straight games… He [Mr. Isaacs] stuck with us and we stuck with him, and after a period of time we started to win.” Through sports, he coached these youth through life. Many of the young people he trained credit Mr. Isaacs for shaping their lives, in particular the ways in which they approached and achieved goals.
When Walter Isaacs passed away in 1994, the seeds that he planted during his life had grown and borne fruit. The West Medford Community Center outgrew its first home in the Quonset Hut. The youth he motivated and mentored have themselves become mentors. Walter Isaacs lives on through the many young people he guided with a soft yet powerful voice, many of whom have modeled themselves after him. His wife, Mrs. Alice Isaacs, sums him up: “[H]e was a quiet man; he didn’t talk a lot; he liked people. He had some very good qualities and would do anything for anybody in the neighborhood when there was a need for immediate help”
Kenneth J. Cleary, May 2005
Resource persons: Mrs. Alice Isaacs, Ms. Cynthia Isaacs, Mr. Wallace Kountze, Mr. Horace Works