Billy Walker grew up on the main street of Hartland, Wisconsin, a small town of lakes and farms about 30 miles west of Milwaukee that "looks exactly like it sounds."
Named AU's 14th director of athletics and recreation in February, Walker played baseball and soccer and wrestled in high school, where he dreamed of a career as a coach or physical education teacher. But his drive, intelligence, and leadership abilities took him to much loftier heights.
As a freshman at the U.S. Air Force Academy, the undersized Walker walked onto the wrestling team, competing at 118 pounds. "Every single day I said, 'You're one bad practice away from getting cut, so don't let it be today,'" he says. Four years later he captained the team.
Walker chose a career as a helicopter pilot, logging nearly 3,000 hours of flight time. He routinely whisked VIPs and foreign dignitaries around Washington in a UH-1N Huey (pictured) and rose through the ranks to colonel. He served as deputy commander of the 89th Operations Group at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, which provides priority airlift to the country's highest-ranking officials.
In 2001 he was appointed by President George W. Bush as the first permanent professor of athletics and physical education at the Air Force Academy, where he stayed as deputy director of athletics until coming to AU in April.
"It was a tough decision, but the right decision," Walker says of leaving. "American is a university whose values and philosophy fit mine perfectly. The emphasis is on academics, while at the same time fielding a robust Division I program, but not compromising on those academic standards at all.
"I believe intercollegiate athletics is one component of a comprehensive educational program developing the whole person. I'm adamant that athletics must complement the academic mission, not overwhelm it."
There's still a hint of Wisconsin in Walker's voice, and there's unquestionably the same look of determination in his eyes that took him from a small town in dairy country to prestigious positions in—and above—the nation's capital.