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There isn’t much that is Mammoth that entrepreneur, business owner and resident Sam Walker hasn’t had his fingerprints on in the past 50 years.
Whiskey Creek Restaurant—“the place to be” in Mammoth for decades—complete with Joe Sample singing Christmas songs every holiday season? Check.
Angels Restaurant? Check.
Sam’s Woodsite (yes, he’s that Sam)? Check.
The Mammoth Brewery? Check.
Rafters, which he opened with Jerry Buss in 1967? Check.
On top of that, Walker, who started Whiskey Creek with Harry McKee and Dennis Hartman back in 1971, has in some way employed, trained or worked with many of Mammoth’s most long-lived and successful restaurant and business owners, from Ed Hurly of Bergers to Matt Toomey of Toomey’s to Fred Lenard of Roberto’s to Norm Matoza of the Bishop Whiskey Creek site.
“I believe Sam Walker is a Mammoth icon,” said Matoza. “There are a few of them, like Dave McCoy, and Sam is one of them. He was kind of a visionary, he was always looking ahead, he could see generations ahead. He shaped Mammoth.
“Not only that, but he was a mentor to so many, he’s still my mentor and I’ve known him since 1978. He set high standards for customer service, he believes in doing back-flips for his customers, and he never rested on his laurels, he was always looking for something to improve.”
That drive and dedication got passed down to employees and then later, to employees who became business owners, Matoza said. In doing so, Walker set a standard for visitor-dependent Mammoth that quietly and slowly shaped some of the best parts of a town that is still trying to find itself.
Toomey explained it best.
“There wasn’t a day when I was working at the Whoa Nelly Deli when I didn’t see something and think of what Sam Walker would do if he saw it,” he said. “I would implement that at the gas station. It’s a huge part of why it was so successful. He had the most positive impact in my career of anyone in Mammoth.”
That doesn’t mean Walker was an easy boss.
Far from it, Toomey said, who started as a cook at Whiskey Creek during its heyday.
“We used to see his truck pull up in the parking lot and the theme from Jaws would go through everyone’s head,” Toomey said with a laugh. “He didn’t put up with people that didn’t work hard or do a good job. But at the same time, if you worked hard, if you were good, he’d teach you everything.
“He always used to say, ‘If there wasn’t anything going on, throw a party. You can make something happen, if you just get off your lazy ass.’
“He was a doer,” Toomey said, “and I hope, some of us, though we can never be as intense as Sam, can follow in his footsteps.”
Despite Walker’s very visible impact on Mammoth, the man himself has remained something of a mystery, preferring to work behind the scenes and leaving the politicking and public meetings to others.
This week, however, a hundred or more former employees—and friends and family members—will descend on Mammoth during the Fourth of July weekend to reunite with Walker and each other.
Walker stopped by the Times this week to talk a little about Mammoth and himself, a vibrant and intense man with clear eyes and a strong and easy laugh.
He thinks Mammoth is still a town trying to find itself and though he is hopeful about the town’s future, he is also concerned.
“Is the future good?” he asked. “Good for who? I think the town is always moving. I love seeing young people try things. But there is now too much regulation on the little guys and not enough on the big guys.”
One of the biggest obstacles Mammoth faces is the fact that its political system doesn’t require accountability from any one person in a leadership role. What is needed is someone who has the vision, intelligence and personality to unite the town, he said. He noted that he has seen the difference such a leader, perhaps given responsibility in a “strong mayor” form of government, could make.
“It really does come down to a person, a leader,” he said. “I’ve visited some communities like this, like Telluride, where they have done amazing things. When people say, ‘well, what if we get the wrong guy?’ I just say, ‘then he won’t keep his job.’ No one keeps their job unless they can build consensus.
“We have had great people with some of the needed qualities, many of them, but not all of them, and that’s what I think we need,” Walker said.
“As much as I thought of it, I knew I didn’t have the personality to go into politics. I just didn’t, but that’s what I think we need.”
On the more personal level, Walker said he is gratified that so many people look up to him, and are trying to follow in his footsteps.
“What greater joy can you get in life than helping someone else?” he said. “My best friends, like Gary Berger, were fiercely competitive, but we were friends. We didn’t hold back from helping each other because someday, you might need it back.”
He knows he was not an easy boss.
“I set pretty intense standards. Quality meant a lot to me,” he said. “I recall one time, a manager walked up to me and asked me, ‘Are you ever going to be satisfied?’”
“Probably not,” he said with a laugh.
Walker is still involved with Mammoth. He still lives here and is still married to his wife of 41 years, Shelly Walker, the great love of his life. He is also, now, a grandfather to seven grand children, four of whom live in Mammoth,
He’s still also one of the owners of Sam’s Woodsite, which he holds in the name of several Mammoth charities. He said he is hoping the Town of Mammoth Lakes will buy the site so the town can finally have its own outdoor venue site.
That might take a while, though, if the town keeps convincing itself it can’t afford it.
“I’m still trying,” he said.
He is, however, finally in a kind of semi-retirement, trying to simplify his life, selling off some of his many properties, trying to put the brakes on his constant desire to try just one more new thing.
“I couldn’t help myself,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m trying in a very serious way. We want to travel, see the country, to go to New Zealand and see my grandson graduate.”
If that does happen, if the Walkers divest more, Mammoth without Walker will be a poorer place, said Greg Kelley, another former Whiskey Creek employee.
“The first person any of us would turn to when we were trying to do something new, trying to start something, was Sam,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know a lot about him because he doesn’t talk about himself, but that’s the way he does things to make a difference. And it was always a positive difference.”