The Lock Haven Murder of Don Walden

Don Walden, a fellow chemistry major at Penn State from 1954 to 1958, was my close friend.  Our class had less than twenty chemistry majors, and our friendship was inevitable.  Placement in classrooms, labs, and lecture halls was always alphabetically by last name, and we were constantly seated side-by-side.

On the surface, we seemed quite different. He came from a poor family, while I was distinctly middle-class. I was from suburban Philadelphia, he was from Waterford, PA, a rural town about 15 miles from Erie. He had a slight paralysis in one hand from a childhood bout with polio.  He played guitar and had a repertoire of mining songs before folk music became popular.  He was singing “Dark as a Dungeon” long before Johnny Cash.  I had no musical aptitude whatsoever, but we had similar personalities with similar antisocial, wry senses of humor.

Don, far right, me, left in the blanket. With friends at Black Moshannon State Park near Penn State, 1957.

Don, far right.  Me, left, in the blanket. With friends at Black Moshannon State Park near Penn State, 1957.

We both were turned off by the campus fraternities, and that alone isolated and bonded us on the strongly Greek Penn State campus.  Rather than endless fraternity parties, we spent most Saturday evenings at the new student union building or playing handball in the gym, and, later, sharing a pitcher of beer at the local tavern. On one of those Saturday evenings, the gym was closed for a prom, for which we were socially unsuited and had no thought of attending (no girlfriends, either). But we were there anyway, on the roof, peeing down on the incoming crowds. All they felt on the ground was a light mist, and no one even looked up or heard our muffled laughter.

After the freshman year of living in the dorms, most students moved into the many sorority and fraternity houses, but staying independent put us at the mercy of crabby landladies who rented out their spare bedrooms and basements to desperate students. One evening, Don showed up at my door with his packed suitcase and guitar when his landlady summarily threw him out on the street for making too much noise. We retrieved his books and radio from her porch the next morning, and he did find another place to live.  Such events were common.  Student rentals were in constant flux as both owners and renters searched for a better fit.  No one had a lease.  We were politically powerless with no rights or course of appeal, and not even Judge Judy to help us.

When we graduated in 1958, the country was in a recession and jobs were scarce. I eventually found a job on government-funded research at the RCA labs in Princeton, NJ. Don was one of the lucky few (initially) who secured a job before graduation at the Hammermill paper mill in Lock Haven, PA.  I was turned down for the same job, but Don was smarter than me and better suited for that rural environment where deer hunting and high school football were obsessions.  I would have bolted for greener pastures as soon as the economy turned up, and they certainly knew this.

For the first years after graduation, we were both busy with our new lives and new families. We did meet once in Philadelphia when he was at a paper manufacturer’s convention, and it was just like old times. We promised to reunite at least once a year, but that never happened.

On October 24, 1967, I picked up our local newspaper and read in bold headlines, “Seven Killed at Lock Haven Paper Mill.”  Don’s name was listed as one of them, as I knew it would be even before reading the article.  It was national news, headlined all across the country.

The supervisory staff of the paper mill arrived a half-hour before the daily plant operations began. A disgruntled plant lab technician came in that morning, and during 18 minutes, randomly shot and killed several of them.  He then left the plant to settle other grudges nearby, eventually killing six altogether and wounding six more.  He died in a hospital from multiple gunshot wounds following a police gun battle.  They tried to take him alive and aimed for his arms and legs, but one shot hit him in the forehead.

It seemed unbelievable at the time, one of the earliest mass-murders in the country.  The Texas Tower sniper shootings occurred just the year before, but that was thought to be a bizarre anomaly.

Thanks to the Internet, more details are now available.  According to reports, Don’s new, second wife also worked at the plant.  He was the manufacturing superintendent, and when the shooting started, he went to her open office area and told everyone to stay put.  As he stepped back into the hallway, the gunman was right there facing him.  Don’s last words were, “Oh, no!” as the gunman fired point-blank into his chest, killing him almost instantly.  Don was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Five years later, the plant closed following a damaging flood of the Susquehanna caused by the remains of Hurricane Agnes, and no trace of it remains today.

You can read the full story at  A book on the killings, “A Day of Rage” (2011) by Don Sarvey, is available on Amazon.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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One Response to The Lock Haven Murder of Don Walden

  1. Ashley says:

    The paper mill in Lock Haven (Hammermill) remained open until the early 2000’s. My dad and grandfather both worked there until it’s closing. The plant still remains today, but it is no longer a paper mill it’s First Quality. There was a major flood of the Susquehanna, but it never resulted in the closure of the mill.

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