From Cedar Rapids to owning the L.A. Dodgers, Mark Walter moves quietly and effectively
Former Jefferson High classmates recall him as smart, driven, quiet, friendly
He is the new controlling owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
He is the chief executive officer of Guggenheim Partners, a privately held financial services firm with offices in nine countries and more than $125 billion in assets under management.
He reportedly is a billionaire.
But Mark Walter wasn’t born on third base and thought he hit a triple. There was no toney community and exclusive prep school in his childhood. He grew up on the west side of Cedar Rapids and went to Jefferson High School.
If you’ve never heard of Walter, that wouldn’t offend or displease him in the slightest. He has never been an attention-seeker, though buying a major-league baseball team for a pro sports-record $2.15 billion would indicate otherwise.
Many other members of Jefferson’s Class of 1978 didn’t know of Walter’s whereabouts until the news broke this spring that he was heading a group, including former Los Angeles Lakers superstar Magic Johnson, to buy the Dodgers.
The few public comments Walter has made have pretty much been out of necessity. He and his five fellow owners held a press conference at Dodger Stadium on May 2, where he said it was just the second time he had done an interview with the press. He didn’t respond to an interview request for a feature the Los Angeles Times published about him two weeks earlier.
I made three efforts over three weeks to try to get Walter on the phone for an interview. No luck.
After my third try, I got an email from Guggenheim’s media contact, Brunswick Group. It was boiled down to this: “ ... as you can understand he is very busy right now.”
Walter did speak to a Chicago Tribune reporter in late March, though.
“I’m a fairly quiet and private person,” he said. “So I haven’t sought publicity.
“To be frank, my belief is if you just keep your head down and work, and you have the fortune to be successful, there really aren’t moments that change you. Yes, your company gets bigger and owns more things, but you’re just the same person you were the day before.”
At that Los Angeles press conference, Walter said he was raised “not far from the Field of Dreams, where my parents taught us to work hard and to know the value of love,”
I called Walter’s father, Ed Walter, who worked at a concrete block manufacturing plant in Cedar Rapids and still lives here. He declined to be interviewed when I called him, referring me to his son. Which makes him a good parent, protecting the wishes of his child.
But it’s not like there appears to be a chunk of dirt — or even a speck — to write about Walter. He sounds like he has embodied a version of the American dream.
Walter grew up in a middle-class family in middle America, graduated from Creighton University in accounting, earned a law degree from Northwestern University’s law school, worked in a Chicago law firm, then went on to First Chicago Capital Markets. He went on to found investment firm Liberty Hampshire Col, which is now a subsidiary of Guggenheim Partners.
He lives in Chicago, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood adjacent to Lake Michigan. He and his wife, Kimbra, have a daughter. The Walters are trustees of the Lincoln Park Zoo, and are involved with Chicago Hope Academy and Urban Students Empowered.
“I think I’m turning a page in my life, where I can begin to focus on things beyond business, such as building platforms that have impact, social responsibility and philanthropic activities,” Walter told the Tribune.
Chicago is less than an hour from Cedar Rapids via private jet, but Lincoln Park and the 60-story Franklin Center in the Chicago Loop where Walter works are quite a ways from westside Cedar Rapids. Yet, some of his former Jefferson classmates didn’t seem at all shocked that Walter had done so well for himself.
“We were friends from junior high through high school,” said Jeff Nechanicky, who has done mighty well himself. He is the associate director of Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Indianapolis.
“He was a smart guy, driven, focused on goals and objectives. I had no doubt he would succeed.”
Tracy Sankot of Cedar Rapids added “He was a great guy, a quiet guy, and usually about the smartest guy in class. I had some of the high-end math classes with him.
“We were on the J-Hawk golf team, but if I remember well, we were usually fighting for the last varsity spot or one of the JV spots.”
Walter’s prom date in his senior year at Jefferson, Cathy Boland Polito, has not seen him since high school graduation. Until a copy of a story about Walter’s group purchasing the Dodgers was posted on the Jefferson Class of 1978 Facebook page, she didn’t know what he had been doing with his life.
“Nobody seemed to know where he was,” said Polito, who lives in Oro Valley, Ariz.
She thinks Walter must have taken a lot of Cedar Rapids and Jefferson with him.
“A lot of people from my class are very successful,” Polito said. “I’ve lived in many places, and Cedar Rapids had a fabulous school system.
“The work-ethic there was huge. It wasn’t that you had to be the valedictorian, but that you do it right and do it well. We were working-class, but said ‘Let’s go for it.’ I think that’s what Mark grew up in. Everybody I knew there was solid as a rock.”
Polito remembers Walter picking her up for prom in a car that he had bought.
“I wasn’t a car person,” she said, “But he had this green car that was perfectly clean. I asked him if that was his mom and dad’s car, and he said, ‘No, it’s mine.’ I think he worked at a gas station.
“I thought ‘Wow, he paid for his own car, he’s dressed to the hilt, groomed.’ He was just the perfect gentleman. He had everything planned.
“We had three dates in the last six weeks of high school. He was like a great friend.
“I can’t quite categorize him. He was like the All-American guy, blond hair, a killer smile. Just a nice guy. He didn’t talk a lot. He was a great listener and he smiled a lot.”
Walter still doesn’t talk a lot. But he did tell ESPN.com this after the press conference in Dodger Stadium’s center field:
“I didn’t think that this (buying the Dodgers) would be about me or public appearances ... because it’s not about me.”
Apparently, even a billionaire can be a bit naive. But Walter did admit he had a joke ready about moving the team to Cedar Rapids if anyone asked a question about relocating the team for some reason. Unfortunately, no one asked.
Walter’s prom date isn’t a baseball fan at all, but Polito said his purchase of a big-league franchise is “awesome.”
“I think we should hold our next class reunion at Dodger Stadium.”