Craig Walter recounts the memory as if it were just yesterday.
Walter, younger brother of singer, drummer and one-time Lettermen singing group member Paul Walter, remembers the day the seeds were planted for his brother to join the famed vocal trio founded in 1958.
Paul Walter died Aug. 9 in Paramus, N.J. after being diagnosed with brain cancer. His wife was a college president in New Jersey, but he spent time as a youth in Lee’s Summit where Craig Walter’s parents still reside in the Raintree Lake subdivision.
“We were on tour in Vegas when I was 14 and I will never forget the Lettermen were playing down the Strip,” Craig Walter, 51, said of the 56-year-old Paul’s ascent into the group. “I guess they caught wind that there was a five-man group playing down the road at one of the other big hotels and they were covering some of the Lettermen’s hits in five-part harmony instead of three-part.
“What happened was Tony (Butala) got wind of this and wanted to go check the show out. He came in and – the other four guys in the band were brothers – there was my brother, a blonde hair guy. I guess Tony was joking with my dad and he said, ‘yeah, the other four boys are good, but that blonde-haired guy, he can sing.’ And my dad told him, ‘well, that’s my son.’ And that’s how they got to know each other.”
Robert Poynton, a current member of the Lettermen who performed in the group with Walter for a time, posted on his Facebook page after news of Walter’s death: “Please take a moment today to remember Paul Walter, who passed away (Aug. 9). Paul was a member of The Lettermen while Donovan Tea was recovering from an illness back in 1990. I will remember him as kind and giving and will always be grateful for the opportunity to sing with Paul. May he rest in peace and comfort.”
An unofficial fan site designed by Patrick Fullerton and endorsed by the group’s founder and current member Tony Butala, said Paul Walter took over for almost four months on the road when Tea took a brief leave of absence from May to August of 1990. According to the site, Paul Walter performed with Ernie Pontiere during his final months with the group and with Poynton for his first few shows as a Letterman.
“After the two original members left, Tony Butala was the one who carried the band on forward like so many of the famous bands from the 60s, 70s and 80s,” said Craig Walter, a 1981 graduate of Lee’s Summit High School. “Tony knew that my brother knew their material. When Donovan blew his vocal chords out – he strained them pretty bad – the first person Tony called was my brother.”
Craig Walter said his brother’s professional music career spanned 41 years. He served as a drummer/lead-vocalist for numerous bands throughout the Kansas City music arena, playing with some of the city’s most notable jazz and blues artists.
His professional career started at the age of 16 with Ivan Fetch, a Joplin-based rock group that managed to sell-out Neosho Municipal Auditorium. Paul Walter also played with Hearts of Fire, Franklin Mint, Bonsoir, Diane “Momma” Ray and Tim Witmer, in addition to the Lettermen.
Paul Walter’s battle with brain-cancer, however, started back when he was 20, Craig Walter said.
“At that time, doctors diagnosed Paul with a benign-tumor in the Pineal-gland near the center of the brain,” he said. “Although the tumor was inoperable, doctors were successful with shrinking the tumor with the use of chemotherapy and extensive radiation-therapy. However, none of us knew Paul may have another encounter later in life due to the treatment he received earlier.
“In 2012, after undergoing an annual CAT scan, doctors noticed a mass near the frontal-lobe of the brain and immediately began their efforts to determine what it was and what type of tumor Paul was dealing with. Lab results showed the new tumor that had formed was a glioblastoma, one of the most common forms of tumors and brain-cancer, and usually treatable if caught in its earliest stages.”
Unfortunately for Paul Walter, his brother said, his cancer was Stage 3 and inoperable.
“Radiation therapy wasn’t an option as doctors said most glioblastomas form due to a patient’s previous exposure to radiation therapy near the neck or head area,” Walter said. “This was something we were entirely unaware of at the time. We didn’t know there was a risk 20 to 35 years down the road that something like this could happen.
“After learning this news I became very concerned for others who may have undergone some form of radiation-therapy at an earlier point in life to let them know to be very vigilant in their efforts in the event they feel they’re beginning to show signs or experience problems. Although glioblastomas are one of the most common forms of brain cancer, the prognosis is poor if not caught extremely early and a patient may have only 12 months at best.”
As time played out, Walter said, that is exactly what happened to his brother.
“He fought courageously,” Walter said. “Doctors threw everything at it they could with regard to chemotherapy.”
A Celebration of Life for Paul Walter is scheduled for 11 a.m. Aug. 17 at Church of the Resurrection, Wesley Chapel, 13720 Roe Ave. in Leawood, Kan. A reception will follow at the church.
“I’m getting calls and emails from some of the most prolific artists around the country who knew my brother and have shared the stage with him on tours – it kind of blows me away,” Walter said. “So many artists are coming to the memorial – a who’s who of the music world – and some I haven’t heard from or seen in years. It’s very touching to know how Paul touched the lives of so many. It’s a privilege to be called his ‘little brother.’”