08/27/2013 01:24 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

Walton McNulty 1923 - 2013

If Herb Caen, the ubiquitous man about town columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about Long Beach the way he wrote about his beloved adopted city, he'd have devoted many column inches to Walton McNulty.

I became aware of -- and intrigued by -- Walton years before I met him. He seemed to be everywhere, at any time of day. I'd see this elderly gentleman with obscenely perfect posture walking up Pacific, down First, along Broadway, way up north on Atlantic, and across the civic center. He managed to seem purposeful at the same time that he never appeared to be in a hurry. His attire, to put it mildly, was colorful: a cowboy hat, a bolo tie, and bold patterned shirts. His Cheshire Cat grin suggested he knew secrets and backstories (i.e., dirt) which, because he was old school (i.e., a gentleman), would never make it to the light of day. I didn't have a clue who he was or what he did, but it didn't matter. He was a character and, when I thought of Long Beach, I thought of him.

I was formally introduced to him when he asked me to jury a Long Beach Arts exhibition. Everything I had imagined about him was correct: he was impishly and incorrigibly polite; and he was dedicated to Long Beach in a way that was both fierce and gentle. It was a joy to have finally met him and we became friends. He would come to birthday parties I would have at Utopia Restaurant and, God help us, the V Room. He would bring gifts, the first and most cherished being a hand-made bolo tie. He could silence a table of otherwise boisterous actors and artists with stories he would tell about growing up in the Depression, about Long Beach in the 40s, stories he told in a campfire singsong voice. We'd have to lean in to hear him, and there we would remain, captivated and spellbound.

Over the years, we became lunch buddies, his favorite place being Zephyr Vegetarian Cafe on Fourth Street. A few years back he talked about leaving Long Beach. I told him the city would miss him. I'll never forget how his eyes swelled with tears as he said "Do you really think so?" As it happened, he never left Long Beach, and we were blessed for a few more years with his gracious company.

He was insanely modest. For the first year I knew him, I never realized -- because he never mentioned it - his prominent role in the formative years of Long Beach culture. Later, when I found out from other people that he had served 60 years on the board of directors of Long Beach Arts, the city's oldest arts group; that he had volunteered with distinction for years at Rancho Los Cerritos and the Long Beach Museum of Art; and had performed with exquisite aplomb with The Prime Time Players, who performed at the senior center, I would ask him about these experiences and he would pooh-pooh the request as grandstanding or bragging. Not, mind you, the institutions themselves, just his role within them. That's the kind of guy he was: unassumingly significant and crazy-proud of his city. You can tell he loved being here, that he wanted to trumpet the things that Long Beach had to offer; but instead of speaking in the first person, he chose to be the man behind the scenes.

That's his legacy: his sincere, quiet passion, his patience, his capacity for sharing of himself without asking for anything in return. The world of course will spin on but it won't be the same without Walton McNulty. He shunned the spotlight but we, of course, know better. We can't -- and never will -- deny the impact he had on our hearts, on our city, and on everything that's going to continue in the post-Walton years.