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Son of Wal-Mart founder killed in plane crash

John Walton, the son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and a member of the company’s board, died Monday in a plane crash in Wyoming.
John Walton
John Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, was a Vietnam veteran and a major backer of education causes.Redux Pictures file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wal-Mart heir John T. Walton, who died in the crash of his experimental, ultralight aircraft, was remembered as a friendly man who threw his considerable financial support behind efforts to educate low-income children.

Walton, of Jackson, Wyo., crashed shortly after takeoff Monday from Jackson Hole Airport in Grand Teton National Park, the company said. The cause of the crash was not known and park rangers planned an investigation, officials said. Walton was 58.

“I think all you can say is he was just a good man and today, you grieve,” Jay Allen, Wal-Mart senior vice president of corporate affairs, told The Morning News of Springdale.

Walton, the middle of three sons of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and a member of the company’s board, was a major advocate of school vouchers, supporting efforts to create taxpayer-funded ways for students to attend private schools.

Walton founded the Children’s Scholarship Fund in 1998 to provide low-income families with money to send their children to private schools. The foundation started with $67 million from the Walton Family Foundation and benefited more than 67,000 children.

In March, Forbes magazine listed John Walton as No. 11 on its list of the world’s richest people with a net worth of $18.2 billion. He was tied with his younger brother, Jim, one spot behind his older brother, Rob, who is Wal-Mart chairman, and just ahead of his sister, Alice, and his mother, Helen. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is the world’s largest retailer.

“I certainly have nothing negative to say about the man at all. He was a prince,” said Walton’s former wife, Washington County Circuit Judge Mary Ann Gunn. “He loved to build things. He loved motorcycles. He built his own motorcycle.”

The plane he died flying was an experimental ultralight aircraft with a small, gasoline-powered engine and wings wrapped in fabric similar to heavy-duty sail cloth, officials said.

Joan Anzelmo, a spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park, said Walton, “well-known and much-loved in this valley, died doing something that he loved to do.” Rangers will investigate the crash, as is done with any major accident in the park, she said.

The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched an investigator from the Denver regional office to monitor developments at the scene, officials said.

At this point there’s no decision to launch a full-fledged investigation, NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm said Tuesday. Ultralights are generally outside NTSB’s jurisdiction.

Michael Collins, a flight instructor with Jackson Hole Aviation, said the wings were intact, and the tail broke from the rest of the plane but remained intact.

Walton appeared to have died on impact, but an autopsy was planned to determine whether any health factors might have played a role in the crash, Teton County coroner Bob Campbell said.

Jim Courtovich, who spent two years getting the Children’s Scholarship Fund off the ground, said Walton was a devoted sponsor who “didn’t just donate money, he donated time and energy.” Walton would clear days at a time from his schedule to focus on the project, he said.

Courtovich also said that Walton had a casual manner and, like his father, not above doing chores himself. One time, skiing in Jackson Hole, he said Walton “had to leave early because he had to caulk his chimney.”

John Walton was a major stockholder in Wal-Mart, with about 12 million shares of the company’s stock. He also shared ownership of about 1.7 billion shares with his family in a joint partnership called Walton Enterprises LLC. Walton joined the board of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in 1992 and served on its on the Strategic Planning and Finance Committee.

John Walton was an Army veteran who served with the Green Berets as a medic during the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Silver Star for saving the lives of several members of his unit while under enemy fire, according to the company.

He attended the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, and served as a board member of the Walton Family Foundation, which played a key role in fund-raising in the University of Arkansas’ recent Campaign for the 21st Century. The Walton family made a $300 million gift to the campaign in 2002.

Besides his mother and siblings, Walton is survived by his wife, Christy, and son, Luke.