Derrick Steven Walter was born on Dec. 20, 1977, in Walkerton, Ont., the second of five boys to Ken and Sharon Walter. An adventurous child with bright blue eyes, Derrick “loved to explore,” says Sharon. “Right from little,” bumps and scrapes would spark laughter instead of tears. When he was three, the family moved to a dairy farm. Derrick and older brother Kevin, just one year apart, were “practically twins,” says Kevin. Partners in crime, they raced tractors, and held onto cows’ tails, “skiing behind,” he says. With a tire and nails, they once built a bungee jump off the roof. But Derrick’s face always belied his guilt, says Sharon. “He wore his emotions on his sleeve.” Regular churchgoers, the Walters encouraged their kids to pray, and to always lend a hand. In winter, Ken often pulled out the tractor to help stranded motorists, a habit that persisted all his life.
Every year, the Walter brothers did a “secret Santa” gift exchange. When Derrick was 10, he opened his present to find that Kevin had re-gifted; it was the same model plane he had given Kevin the Christmas before. Years passed before he drew Kevin’s name again. But when he did, he wrapped up the plane—which, says Kevin, “has gone back and forth” ever since.
Life on the farm “wasn’t a free ride,” says Sharon, but Derrick always pulled his weight. As kids, he and Kevin pooled their weekly allowances for a second-hand dirt bike. After high school, they frequented the track in Paisley, where Derrick was “beyond fearless,” says friend Justin Kuntz. His desire to “go fast without all the practice” meant he had his share of broken bones, says Justin. At an amateur competition in Florida, Derrick “went through three handlebars in three days,” says friend Chad Adams. Later, he learned he’d cracked vertebrae in the process.
Initially, construction seemed a natural fit for Derrick. He got work with a local company, and joined Kevin in an apartment above a Mildmay, Ont., stereo store. Over time, many of the Walter boys lived in the laid-back place they called “the cottage.” Derrick helped with “whatever you needed done,” says Justin. Once, on their way to a New Year’s party, they stopped to free friend Brad Nocilla’s truck from the snow. Derrick was pulling the chain they were using when the wheels spun and a rock hit him in the face. Still, he went to the party, says Justin, “great, big welt” and all. Derrick and Chad left for Australia and Thailand in January 2003. “We didn’t plan a thing; just bought tickets and hopped on a plane,” says Chad. They returned in April, so Derrick could start firefighting school.
Derrick’s tight-knit group was badly shaken in March 2004 when Brad died in a snowmobile accident. Derrick, who inherited his pickup truck, “couldn’t understand how it could happen so quickly,” says Sharon. His focus shifted to family. By then, he was working as a firefighter for Bruce Power, which supplies 20 per cent of Ontario’s electricity through its nuclear station on the Bruce Peninsula. That year, Derrick, then 27, met 21-year-old Robyn Hall at a bar, through friends. Immediately, she found she “could tell him everything.” In the fall, she started university in London, Ont., but Derrick regularly made the two-hour drive.“He was head over heels,” says Chad. They soon moved in together, and their families became close, playing hockey on Sundays at a local rink.
Robyn found out she was pregnant on Thanksgiving weekend, 2007. She wasn’t planning on having kids and was in her last year at school, but she says Derrick’s excitement “changed my heart.” When son Taylor was born, she says, “he cried more than me.” In memory of Derrick’s friend, they chose “Bradley” for his middle name. Worried that “people would think we were just getting married because [of the] baby,” she asked him to hold off on proposing. Last June, two weeks after Taylor was born, he took Robyn to a flower garden in Guelph, and asked for her hand. The date was set for Aug. 8, 2009.
Though he made good money at Bruce Power, last spring Derrick started a concrete company on the side. He was planning to pursue the business full-time when he was laid off in January. But, says Robyn, “he didn’t want to put us in jeopardy.” So when Bruce Power called him back, he went. Feb. 10 was his second shift. He was driving home on a concession road when a pickup truck hit a hydro pole, scattering guy wires over the road. As usual, Derrick got out to help. He signalled to an approaching vehicle to slow down. But it kept going, entangling the wires in its underbelly. The hydro pole snapped, and Derrick was directly in its path. He died instantly, at 31 years of age.