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A governor from Halifax: High school student elected to top post at Boys State

Harrison Walker, a rising Halifax County High School senior, made history earlier this month when he was elected governor while attending Boys State in Radford.

Walker is the first Halifax County High School student ever to be elected to the state’s highest office while attending the annual Boys State event.

Each year, after a thorough application process, a group of young men from the high school are selected to attend Virginia Boys State of The American Legion. 

This year, Chase Cole, Desmund Edmunds, Harrison Walker, Jonathan Arnold, Lane Shiflet, William Harris, Michael Berry and Ronald Lipscomb all were chosen to attend, but it was Walker who made history.

Becoming governor of Boys State is not trivial nor is it easy. The process of being elected is almost identical to that in state government, compacted into just three days. 

Boys State, which was held at Radford University this year, runs from Sunday afternoon to Saturday morning with the election process starting on Tuesday and ending on Thursday. 

Walker said he wasn’t even sure he wanted to run until after he arrived at Boys State.

“Well, I didn’t really know what to expect, I didn’t even know anything about being governor or any kind of positions at all until I started talking to Mr. Frank Carr from Post 99. He started talking about this governor deal, you know, he said, ‘We’ve never had anyone be a governor from Halifax. I just want one of y’all to consider it.’ So I went on their website and looked it up.” 

Walker said, “I mentioned it to one of my friends who went to Boys State last year, and he said, ‘Ah, you don’t understand how big of a deal that is. You’ll never do it.’”

After spending a couple of days at Boys State and being approached by several governor-hopefuls, Walker became more and more convinced that running for governor was something he wanted to do. 

 “There was one guy who was even doing magic tricks, and I just thought, ‘I think I can take these guys.’”

Upon arriving at Boys State, each member is put into a “city,” with the program making sure that they are separated from anyone else they originally came with. 

Walker became a member of Washington City and received a lot of help and encouragement from his counselor and peers while seeking election. 

 “From day one, I had talked to my city counselor, and he told me I should run for governor… I think it was my counselor seeing that from day one that made me decide to do it,” Walker explained. “I surrounded myself with really good people, and my whole city was behind me. I had a really good campaign manager. He was from Colonial Heights. He really helped me. The other guys from Halifax, they really did their part. So yeah, it turns out everybody from my city knew two or three other guys in different cities, and it was this weird cycle that evolved. It was great.”

Once the election process began, the members of Boys State were separated into two political parties with no particular platform until the members created them. Each city then elected a member to run for governor, leaving 32 nominees. That number was then split until only two remained, one from each party.

The material Walker used to earn the votes of his peers was simple and patriotic. He didn’t write entire speeches but relied on a few words written in his notebook, a single Reagan quote and the fact that he was a farmer from a small town rather than a politician from a big city.

 “Every guy there was like, ‘I have a 4.9. I’m the captain of four varsity sports.’ And I was like, ‘Man, I’m a farmer.’ I kinda used that to my advantage because, you know, everybody was the same. The majority of them were from northern Virginia. I just tried to be honest. I went with the ‘I’m a leader, not a politician’ approach. I talked about the Founding Fathers, and I was like, ‘You know they were farmers, from Virginia, just like me!’” Walker explained, “I used a World Cup reference. They loved that too.”

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced Walker as the winner of the election in a special way. McAuliffe had just come from Girls State, bringing with him a letter of congratulations from the Halifax girls in attendance which he read in front of the entire Boys State assembly.

 “Finally, when he said ‘Harrison Walker,’ I don’t even know. It was just such a great feeling,” Walker said. 

Immediately after the election, Walker’s responsibilities as governor began. He had to appoint 11 cabinet members in two hours who would then advise him in the creation and passing of bills. Walker detailed that time period as “confusing” due to the promises that had been made and “backstabbing” that took place. 

 “I tried not to do that. I wrote down everything that I did. I made sure I kept track of it because I didn’t want to make anyone mad.”

Walker appointed Chase Cole, a fellow Halifax attendee, as secretary of administration. Among his duties to advise Walker, Cole also had served as a campaign manager and counsel member for his city.

“I wasn’t surprised he (Walker) ran,” Cole said.

Both Walker and Cole enjoyed the featured speakers at Boys State and said that they learned a lot.

“Probably one of my favorite things was seeing the lieutenant governor and the attorney general. It was just a good experience. It teaches you a lot about your country and the government and all that,” Cole said.

 “It teaches you how to interact with others, and it teaches you leadership and hard work and no sleep. And it teaches you how to eat Radford food,” Walker laughed. “That was probably the biggest struggle to overcome.”

Both Walker and Cole are rising seniors at Halifax County High School and are making plans for college. Walker would like to study agribusiness at N. C. State and become a farmer. Cole plans on majoring in either biology or political science and has N. C. State and UVA as his top picks. 

Boys State of The American Legion has a prestigious list of alumni including Tom Brokaw, Neil Armstrong, Michael Jordan and Dick Cheney. That list now features two more outstanding alumni that listened, learned and defied the odds.   

Walker is the son of Sam and Karen Walker of Buffalo Junction, and Cole is the son of Wally and Cindy Cole of South Boston.