GREENFIELD – Even on his own birthday, Walter Worland gave the gifts.
With his name on the cake, the candles atop it lit in his honor, he would hand his well-wishers envelopes at his birthday parties, asking them to turn their attention away from him and toward whichever cause he was throwing his weight behind that year, his friends say.
His humanitarian spirit shone through even when the moment was meant to celebrate him. He was always giving, always looking for a way to help others.
Worland, a celebrated local philanthropist, businessman and public servant, died Thursday at the age of 94 after a battle with leukemia.
Friends and loved ones say the Greenfield native’s life was distinguished by his generosity and his thoughtful and kind personality. A World War II veteran, he dedicated his days to giving back to his community — the people he held most dear in the world.
Longtime friend Pat Elmore said the man gave to organizations, causes and people even before he was asked.
“If someone needed something, all he had to do was hear about it,” longtime friend Pat Elmore said.
Worland’s selflessness began early and continued throughout his entire life.
He left high school in 1942 to join the U.S. Army Air Corps after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Just a few months shy of graduating, Worland chose to leave his schooling to serve his country, said Greenfield Mayor Chuck Fewell, who honored Worland for his service earlier this year.
That act spoke volumes to Worland’s dedication to public service, Fewell said: he was willing to put his education aside to be where he felt he was needed most.
And when the fighting was over, he returned to his hometown to better his neighborhoods in the same way he’d tried to better the world.
Worland worked for the Greenfield Daily Reporter as a printer after returning to Central Indiana at the end of World War II. He later founded his own newspaper, the Hancock Journal, and served as its editor for many years.
In 2004, Greenfield-Central’s administration presented Worland with an honorary high school diploma during that year’s graduation ceremony. He was inducted into the district’s alumni hall of fame — which honors distinguished Cougars — in 2015.
While living and working in Greenfield, Worland established himself as a dedicated public servant.
He served on the Greenfield City Council for 12 years and sat on the county’s first planning commission.
And he joined a myriad of philanthropic organizations. He brought hot meals to those in need as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels and helped local teens find their drive to be future leaders through his involvement with youth groups.
Worland established a number of scholarship funds for high school students through the Hancock County Community Foundation and gave Hancock Regional Hospital $100,000 needed to help bring the local cancer center to fruition.
His kindness manifested in private ways as well, said close friend Ruth Walker.
When she moved to a neighborhood for seniors some seven years ago, Worland was the first one to come over, introduce himself and invite her to his home, she said. They’d go out to eat together or take day trips somewhere, talking about their families and the good ole’ days, she said.
Worland’s home was filled with photos and plaques, noting his many accolades and honors.
In 2013, he received the Sagamore of the Wabash from then-Gov. Mitch Daniels — a surprise at his 90th birthday party.
In May, Fewell recognized Worland with a proclamation, thanking him for his dedication to the city.
On the day the proclamation was read, friends and caregivers gathered to celebrate the man, who grinned up at the crowd from his wheelchair despite being frail and tired from his cancer treatments. Though the illness had taken its toll, his mind was as sharp as ever, they said.
Worland chatted away, thanked those gathered for visiting him, shook their hands, said hellos and goodbyes.
Debbie Wilkerson, Worland’s goddaughter, remarked during the proclamation ceremony that his gentle nature was reflected by the number of close friendships he maintained through his long life.
“I hope when I’m his age, I have this many friends,” she said at that time.