Dan Walker is out walking the family dog Winnie in Sheffield’s Endcliffe Park. “This is where I came across Tony Foulds,” he tells me. Tony was tending a memorial to the crew of an American bomber which crashed, narrowly missing him, in 1944. The pensioner told him he wanted to organise a flypast to mark the 75th anniversary of the Mi Amigo crew who sacrificed themselves to save him all those years before.
What happened in the space of a few short weeks is featured in Walker’s new book, Remarkable People. “I knew that I wanted to help him,” says Walker, who took to social media and then featured Tony on BBC Breakfast, the morning show he co-hosts.
In the end, 15,000 people congregated in Endcliffe Park to watch the United States Air Force and RAF flypast. Walker was not there as he was in Tanzania about to climb Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief. “It was best I wasn’t there,” he says. “It would have become about me and it wasn’t about me.”
My first impression of Walker is that he is a journalist with integrity. It may be his deep-rooted Christian faith, or it might be that he is genuinely just a nice guy. He isn’t just prepared to tell people’s stories and walk away. “I do feel a sense of responsibility when I come across people’s stories, if I can do something then I will, I am sure anyone would do the same. I am humbled by the people I have met and the things they have done. I like to keep in touch with people, to see how they are doing – we have responsibility to see it through.”
Walker says he was originally approached to write an autobiography. “There was no way I was going to do that; no one wants to read about me other than my mum. But I did say I would be happy to write about other people and some of the amazing things they have done.”
The result is Remarkable People: Extraordinary Stories of Everyday Lives, which is made up of ten chapters of people who are just that. It may have taken Walker three months during lockdown to write, but he says it has been ten or 15 years in the making. “Over the years I have kept lists of some of the people I have met. The hardest part was whittling it down to ten.”
In the book we also get an insight into Dan Walker the man, how he reacts to certain situations, how the people he meets have affected him. Although he planned to focus on “ordinary” people, probably the most moving chapter to read is about the sons of the late Wales manager and former Leeds United footballer Gary Speed, whose sudden death nine years ago shocked the world. “The publishers wanted me to include a chapter on Gary, but I didn’t want to do anything that might upset his family and so I needed to check with them first.”
Walker refused to allow anything about Gary to be used in pre-publicity for the book. He spoke to Speed’s sister and mother and father, but was surprised when his sons Ed and Tommy said they wanted to talk. “It was the first time since Gary died that the boys have spoken about their dad. They were only 14 and 13 when he died. I felt incredibly humbled. I started writing about Gary but I ended writing about his sons and their incredible bravery.”
Walker had been one of the last people to see Speed alive when he appeared on Football Focus the day before he died and his death had a profound effect on him. But Gary’s sons, their clear love for their father and their desire to raise the issue surrounding mental health have helped him. “The boys are remarkable; they were so young when Gary died, but they don’t feel sorry for themselves. They really want to help other people, to save other families going through what they have gone through.”
Walker never really intended to become a journalist. He was born in Crawley in 1977. His parents were both teachers and he wanted to follow in their footsteps. “I studied history at Sheffield University, and then applied for a PGCE. I think I am the only person ever to have been turned down to become a teacher,” he laughs. “I had a football match straight after my interview and had my kit on underneath my suit which included red socks.” When one of the interviewers asked about his red socks, he stood up and dropped his trousers to show that he was wearing a football kit on underneath. “They said I was too immature to be a teacher. It probably wasn’t my best idea.”
Instead he embarked on an MA in Journalism, doing work experience at Hallam FM before getting a full-time job at Manchester’s Key 103 radio. Having been a keen sportsman, it was natural that he would end up as a sports presenter. He moved into television and started working for the BBC, presenting many of the top sporting events including the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Having presented Football Focus, many people were surprised when Walker took over from Bill Turnbull on BBC Breakfast in 2016. “People were saying why are they giving the job to a sports reporter. It has happened throughout my career that people seem to think I’m not qualified to do my job. It’s not that I like proving them wrong, it is more that I know that I will give it everything I can.”
He manages to juggle current affairs and sport, still presenting Football Focus and more recently The NFL Show, another appointment that received mixed reactions on social media. “I really don’t believe that the people who say things on social media would say those things to my face and so I really don’t let it bother me,” says Walker. But having three children aged 13, 11 and ten, he is more than aware of the effect being on television could have on them. “That’s one of the reasons I never put pictures of them on social media. Maybe I am overprotective.”
Walker’s wife of 20 years Sarah is from Sheffield and, although they did spend a few years in London, they decided to make Yorkshire their home. “I just love Sheffield,” says Walker. “I hate it when people seem to think to be successful in broadcasting you have to be based in London.”
Interviewing journalists is often a tricky affair, but Walker makes it easy. There is nothing, not even his Christianity, that he isn’t willing to talk about. “I have a strong faith and it runs through everything I do, I think it helps me get perspective and understanding. I am happy to talk to people about it but I won’t ram it down their throats.
“I’m not scared of what people think of me, I have probably developed rhino skin over the years. I like the fact we don’t all think the same and just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you hate them.”
Remarkable People: Extraordinary Stories of Everyday Lives is out now.