“He was a good man. He will be sorely missed.”
Those words — almost exactly — were spoken repeatedly by governmental officials and friends alike after the death Friday of Walter B. Croft, longtime Brown County justice of the peace and local businessman.
His funeral will be at 2 p.m. Monday at Coggin Avenue Baptist Church in Brownwood. Visitation will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Heartland Funeral Home in Early.
“He was a fine man, a good friend, a solid individual,” Brown County Judge Ray West said. “He leaves a legacy of honesty and fairness… He had a jovial personality, and he leaves a void in the courthouse that will be hard to fill. There was only one Walter B.”
West said he was in a unique position to appreciate the wisdom and fairness with which Judge Croft conducted his Justice of the Peace Precinct 1 court, because any ruling that was appealed went to his county court.
“He was conscientious in considering all facets of a case,” West said.
West and Croft have both served in their county offices since 1992.
Croft “was always in a good mood, he always spoke to people, and he was a good steward for the county,” West added. “We’re certainly going to miss him. He leaves big shoes to fill. He was a good friend, a really good friend.”
Jim Cavanaugh, justice of the peace from Precinct 4, shared an office at the courthouse with Croft, who was from Precinct 1.
“We were roommates, in a way,” Cavanaugh said. “Walter B. was the senior judge, having been elected in 1992, and Bryan Thompson and I came in at the same time in 2007. Walter would hold your hand getting us up to speed. He was a straight shooter, and didn’t mince words, so it was what it was, but he was extremely helpful. My background was in criminal law, in the FBI, so I had the civil law to catch up on.
“Walter was my rabbi,” he said, “telling me this was something I needed to focus on, or this was not because a ruling had changed it.”
Cavanaugh said Croft was eager to step up to assist other JPs whenever they asked, which is a trademark of the four officials. Other judges presiding over JP courts in Brown County are Mike Holder from Precinct 2 and Bryan Thompson from Precinct 3.
Cavanaugh recalled when Croft showed up for court with a large rip in his shirt, something he hadn’t noticed, and the women in the office told him he couldn’t preside looking like that.
“He got some tape and tried to stick it together, but finally he just took it off and let them mend it,” Cavanaugh said. “While he waited, he was just standing there, naked from the waist up.”
The story serves as one example of how unpretentious Croft was.
“He will be missed by everybody,” Cavanaugh said, “and we’ll be praying for the family.”
Precinct 1 Commissioner Gary Worley said he has known the Croft family since their days in school here.
“Since I found out about his death Friday, I’ve been thinking I’ve known him a long time,” Worley said. “We knew he had been having health trouble, but nobody was expecting it. He would be doing good, and then have some problems, but he was always Walter B.” Worley said he could appreciate some of what Croft was experiencing, having overcome serious health issues of his own recently.
Worley said he had been thinking of Croft a great deal in recent days after noticing that his store, Walter B’s Western Hats downtown, was closed. A sign indicated it was due to illness.
He reflected on a group of men who would meet at the Red Wagon, and while he wasn’t a member, he would see them on days when he stopped there too.
“Walter B. was holding court every morning,” Worley said. “The JPs magistrate the jail, and when he would leave the restaurant he would smile and say, ‘Well, I’ve got to go to jail now.’”
Worley said he enjoyed “every minute” of his association with Croft.
“He was one of our longest serving officials in county government,” Worley said, “and since we were both in Precinct 1, I was able to vote for him every time he ran.”
Joe Shaw, former director of the adult probation department in Brown County and who worked in that field for more than 20 years, recalled two things in particular about Croft — playing high school football together, and his work as a JP.
“The qualities he brought to one, he brought to the other,” Shaw said. “He was really good at both. He was very unselfish, in a good way, and he thought about others. He will be sorely missed, I assure you. This is a bad loss.”
Croft and Shaw played on the undefeated 1965 Brownwood High School Lions state championship football team. When Croft was inducted in 2015 as a member of the Gordon Wood Hall of Champions, along with the entire 1965 team as a group, he was cited for achieving All-State, All-Area and All-District honors as a Brownwood Lion linebacker, and for kicking the decisive extra point in the team’s 7-6 quarterfinals victory over Dumas. Shaw was named first-team All-State at tackle that year.
In his induction remarks, Croft noted the fact that the state champion Lions placed only two players on the All-State first team was a testament to teamwork.
“We didn’t have a bunch of stars, but we had a bunch of players that played together and liked to play together,” Croft told the audience. “We had fun and that was the main thing. That’s what football is.”
Robert Porter, also a member of that 1965 team who now serves as Brown County Republican Party chairman, said the leadership Croft showed on the football field carried over to his work as an adult.
“He was determined he just wasn’t going to get by, he was going to give 110 percent, and he was determined to execute his duties to the best of his ability,” Porter said. “I’ve known him for a long time, and he was a good man.”
Porter recalled that Croft delighted in fooling the medical team who came to administer the annual high school athletic physicals, especially if the physician didn’t know him well, because his internal organs were on the opposite side of his body than normal.
“The doctor would be listening around, and said would say he couldn’t find his heart, or the sounds were too faint,” Porter said.
Croft would joke that the doctor said he didn’t have a heart, but “that’s the way he was born. It was on his right side. He would get a kick out of that.”
Porter said everyone who played for Gordon Wood learned some life lessons, and they took them into adulthood.
“Walter B. carried them on,” Porter said, “and he was a good community servant and leader. We will miss Walter. He was a good man.”