Walter Thomas Flournoy was born on August 25, 1931. A native of Richmond, VA, Walter graduated from Armstrong High School in 1950. After high school, Walter attended West Virginia State College (WVSC) in 1950 and played on the 1951 WVSC baseball team. Not only did Walter excel in baseball at WVSC, he also received the honor of being named the Mathematic Student of the Year in his Sophomore year. In 1951, Walter finished the school year by playing with the Huntington Red Sox of the WV Tri-State baseball team. He received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mathematics with a minor in Physics and Biology. Walter was one of only six distinguished Military graduates of the WVSC graduating class of 1954. He was later inducted into the WVSC Sports Hall of Fame on October 3, 2009.
Upon graduating from WVSC, Walter entered the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant, forgoing a professional baseball contract offer with the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National Baseball League. Walter attended Army Airborne and Ranger school located at Ft. Benning, GA where he received his Paratrooper Airborne Wings. He was later assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division located at Ft. Bragg, NC where he played baseball on the 505th Infantry Regiment baseball team, earning all star status and a selection to the 2nd Army All Star baseball team in 1955. While in the Army, he also played for the Fayetteville Cardinals, an affiliate of the Negro Baseball League, on weekends and often barnstormed with the Kansas City Monarchs and Detroit Stars, also of the Negro Baseball League.
In 1957 as a 1st Lieutenant, Walter received assignment as the commanding officer of Service Battery of the 376 Battalion, thus at the time, becoming the only African-American commanding officer of the 82nd Airborne Division. He subsequently received orders to report to Ft. Bliss, TX to attend guide missal school; instead resigned from active duty, receiving an honorable discharge on August 5, 1957. Around the same time, Walter also received a contract offer from the Washington Senators of the American Baseball League; instead he chose to enter the ranks of the Federal Government as a Civil Servant in the field of Mathematics as an Aero Space Technologist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).
In his early years at NASA, Walter served as a machine programming mathematician in the Advanced Orbital Programming Branch where he performed complex math associated with the derivation of orbital elements of spacecraft in orbit as well as orbit determination. Without the benefit of powerful computers that exist today, Walter played a key role in the earliest days of NASA’s human spaceflight program, including Project Mercury, initiated in 1958. In the years to follow, Walter excelled at NASA and contributed to numerous missions and technical management assignments spanning the decades.
However, Walter’s outstanding technical and managerial contributions were only overshadowed by his dedication to the development of NASA’s employees. He always put people first. He was a tireless champion for the fair and equal treatment of all NASA employees and carried the ball for civil rights and equal opportunity as GSFC and NASA. In 1973, Walter led a group of African-American employees to establish the first Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) center at Goddard. In 1993, Walter filed an administrative class action complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging racial discrimination against all African-American employees in NASA’s scientific and/or engineering non-managerial positions at the GS-13 and GS-14 levels who were evaluated for promotion. Almost a decade later, the lawsuit was settled, and over 120 of NASA’s Senior African-American scientists and engineers were paid for lost earnings dating back to 1991.
Walter’s passion surrounding the fair and equal treatment of all GSFC employees was evidenced by his election as Executive Vice President and later President of the of the Goddard Engineers, Scientists & Technicians Association (GESTA), Local 29 union members. Walter served for 61 years at NASA, retiring on May 31, 2018 after having received numerous distinguished awards including the National Society of Black Engineers “Trailblazer” Award in 2014 for distinguished service and the NASA Agency Honor Awards “Exceptional Service Medal” in 2017 for 61 years of exceptional service and advancing NASA’s missions and its people.
Walter Flournoy is survived by his loving son Geoffroi Flournoy; daughter-in-law Mai Flournoy; grandchildren Kendyl and Quincy; aunt Neva Sanders and her children Sandy, Della, and Jonathan, aunt Ophelia Cockerell, nephews Andre, Pierre, and Jacques Wiley; girlfriend Joyce Catlett and her children Tori and Vincent; cousins, other relatives and loved ones.
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