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Every morning into his 90s, Walter Bailey Jr. could be seen running around the block in his Point Loma neighborhood. He ran one uninterrupted mile, except on trash pickup day.
On that day, he stopped into the yard of each of the neighbors on his cul-de-sac and dragged their trash bins into the street, arranging them neatly, single file. They had to be lined up, angled and spaced apart just right. It made things easier for the trash collectors.
He had a special soft spot for the men who collected the yard waste. Unlike the drivers who pick up trash and recyclables in trucks with giant mechanical claws, the yard waste collectors do it all by hand. They walk alongside their truck and use their arms to empty the cans.
So every other Monday morning, Bailey placed a six-pack of soda into a cooler of ice and left it on top of his yard waste, to give the collectors some respite from their labor. When the bins had been emptied, he went from house to house placing each back in its owner’s yard.
“Most of them were younger than him, but it was just something he did to be nice,” said his son, Walter Bailey III. “He was very meticulous about it. Everything had to be just right.”
Bailey died Jan. 29 at the age of 95, from congestive heart failure. The following Monday, his son said, the trash cans at Narragansett Court were set out in a scattered hodgepodge.
It was a small service Bailey performed for his neighbors each week, but he treated it like it was his most important calling, his son said. He was that committed to all of his volunteer work, which his family said defined his life.
He jumped at the smallest and largest opportunities to give his time. Over the more than four decades of his retired life, he volunteered tens of thousands of hours, maybe more, to hospitals, charities, and schools. For more than 30 years, he was a volunteer with the sheriff’s search and rescue team. He rappelled off of cliffs and out of helicopters to rescue stranded hikers and recover bodies from plane wreckage, always taking courses to keep up with the latest techniques in search and rescue.
He was always the first one to jump at that task, his son said, knowing it was a grim job that few others wanted to do. His colleagues on the rescue team called him the “Mountain Goat,” for his abilities to hike across the most rugged terrains when faced with a person in danger.
“Volunteering is a gratifying and rewarding experience that gives one a wonderful feeling of self satisfaction and adds purpose and meaning to one’s life,” Bailey wrote on a hand-scrawled sheet his son discovered after his death. “The definition of a successful and respected life has always included unselfish service to others.”
Walter Bailey Jr. was born July 21, 1914, in Somerville, Mass, the oldest of four children born to Walter and Gertrude Bailey. After graduating from high school in 1932, he took several jobs, including as an upholsterer and a smalltime businessman, before enlisting in the Massachusetts National Guard in 1937.
In 1940, after graduating from trade school, he moved to San Diego to work for Convair General Dynamics as an engineer, figuring out the best ways to turn airplane designs into the real thing.
He married his first wife, Marcella, in the mid 1940s, and had his only child, Walter III, in 1949.
He was stationed at company plants across the country before returning to San Diego permanently in the early 1950s.
But he took an early retirement at the age of 55.
“He wanted to live life,” his son said.
And he started volunteering, a bug he caught when his son was in the Boy Scouts. He volunteered with the search and rescue team, at local schools, and in the emergency room at the UCSD Medical Center. It kept him busier than ever. He gave money to nearly every organization that wrote to him.
“I don’t know how I ever had time to work,” he told his son.
As a father, his son said, Bailey had been a strict figure, prompt and regimented, and requiring the same of his son. “I called him ‘The General.’”
He performed all his own household repairs. He was proud that his mechanical skills allowed him never to need a hired hand, and he collected spare parts he thought he could use in the future.
“If it was free,” his son said, “he brought it home.”
Over his years as a volunteer, his demeanor softened.
Bailey would scour San Diego’s streets, alleys, and dumpsters for rusted and broken bicycles. He collected them in his garage, “in mountains,” his son said, and repaired them. Then he donated them to local charities.
For more than two decades, he volunteered at the emergency room at the UCSD Medical Center. He visited patients, but also helped doctors set broken bones. He volunteered to be a subject in medical trials for prostate cancer, sleep aids and Alzheimer’s.
“If it caused discomfort for him, that didn’t matter, as long as it was helping someone else,” his son said.
He was asked to leave the search and rescue team when he turned 75, his son said, because his superiors thought he was getting too old. “He was pissed. He said he could out-hike all of them.” He continued his work at the hospital, but after 23 years in the ER, he wanted a change of pace.
“It was the same old broken bones and drug overdoses,” he told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1997. “It got kind of boring.” He started working as a cuddler in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit cradling, feeding, and caressing premature and sick newborns when their mothers were not there.
“You can see that holding really helps,” he told the paper. “We get attached.”
Bailey and his first wife divorced in the early 1980s. When his second wife, Eloise, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the late 1990s, he slowed down. He had promised her he would never put her in a nursing home, and as her health deteriorated, he constructed ever more creative contraptions to make her life easier.
Before her death two years ago, he installed a pulley system in the bathroom to lift her into the shower and onto the toilet. And using a washing machine’s motor, he built an exercise machine that kept her legs moving.
At 92, he was still going strong. One morning, he rigged himself up to the 60-foot pine tree in his backyard, and cut it down section by section, starting at the top. His son had to take his ladder away because he kept climbing the roof.
“Getting old is not for sissies,” Bailey would say.
In the boxes full of commendations and certificates Bailey accumulated over his years of volunteering, his son found a personal note Bailey once wrote, reflecting on volunteerism.
“It is a wonderful chance to learn new skills, explore new horizons, cultivate new friendships, enjoy intellectual stimulations … and take pleasure from the appreciation of those who benefit from your efforts,” he wrote. “If you say ‘Thank You’ to most volunteers, they will reply, ‘Don’t thank me. I enjoy doing it and I need to thank you!’”
“It meant something to him,” said Vickie Garcia, his daughter-in-law. “It was his legacy.”