In August 2021, soon after Celtics vice president of public relations Heather Walker had a golf ball-sized tumor removed from her brain as she began a lengthy battle against glioblastoma, she just wanted to go for a walk.
So two of her closest friends, Wendy Eppich and Lisa Canale, went to Walker’s Marblehead home to join her on a stroll to the beach. They were told to keep it brief but stayed out for twice as long as they should have, because sometimes you just need some friends and ocean air.
Near the end of the walk, Eppich and Canale were on each side of Walker, holding her arms to help stabilize her, when Walker jerked backward as if collapsing.
“Lisa and I just gasped,” Eppich recalled by phone Wednesday. “And then she looked at us with that big Heather Walker smile and goes, ‘Haha, just kidding!’ ”
Throughout her nearly two-year fight, Eppich said, Walker never lost her sense of humor, her wit or, most importantly, her determination. It was fitting that this brief moment of levity occurred during a walk, because Walker never wanted to stop going.
Walker, who died Wednesday at the age of 52, spent most of the last two years raising money for and awareness of glioblastoma via her Move 4 Heather campaign. She made national television appearances, worked closely with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and was determined to do all she could to assist others who are dealing with this aggressive, often deadly disease.
“She was a total fighter,” Eppich said. “Before she even had her tumor removed, she was like, ‘How can I help other people?’ ”
Heather Mae Michalowski Walker is survived by her husband, Stephen, and her two young daughters, Samantha and Taylor.
She was born and raised in Manchester and had lived in Marblehead for nearly 20 years. She graduated from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and in 1996 was hired as the director of marketing and public relations at The Rack, a popular Faneuil Hall billiards lounge that became a hub for social events involving local celebrities.
In the fall of 2006, Celtics president Rich Gotham was at a sports and media event in Boston when one of the Celtics players walked up to him with Walker and said he’d found the team’s new PR director. Walker beamed and said she’d be perfect for the opening that didn’t even exist at the time.
“And I talked to her and got to know her,” Gotham said Wednesday, “and it turned out she was right.”
Walker was hired by the Celtics in October 2006. Red Auerbach, the legendary Celtics coach, president, and vice chairman, died Oct. 28 of that year, and in Walker’s first days on the job, she was thrust into navigating plans surrounding the funeral of franchise royalty.
“She’d never even met Red, and our phones are ringing off the hook with requests and questions,” said Jeff Twiss, the Celtics vice president of media services. “And she just handled everything so calmly and smoothly.”
Although the Celtics were just one season from winning an NBA title, their roster at the time was filled with young, inexperienced players such as Kendrick Perkins, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, and Tony Allen.
“Heather was kind of like the team mom to them,” Gotham said. “None of them had any experience doing media and she’d get them from one place to the next, tell them what they needed to wear, give them reminders on how to conduct themselves during an interview. And two years, later she’s got Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.”
Walker created bonds with Celtics players, helping them balance community appearances and media responsibilities, and making sure to keep the mood light whenever possible.
Twiss recalled an off day during the Celtics’ preseason visit to Rome in 2007 when he was standing outside the team hotel with coach Doc Rivers, thinking about how to spend the afternoon.
“And all of a sudden we hear this ‘Beep! Beep! Beep!’ ” Twiss said. “And then we hear it again and this motor scooter is dashing by. And we look up and it’s Ray Allen driving a motor scooter with Heather on the back, and they’re waving at us going through the streets of the city.”
In July 2021, Walker was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer that afflicts about 12,000 Americans each year. The news was crushing, but it did not take Walker long to flip the script.
Inspired by Pete Frates and his “Ice Bucket Challenge” that raised money for ALS research, Walker decided to start the Move 4 Heather initiative.
Participants were encouraged to take a photo or video of themselves crossing off a bucket-list item or simply being active, share it on social media, and make a donation to the Heather Walker Fund set up to benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. More than $640,000 was raised for the fund in less than two years.
A career in PR made Walker well-equipped to spread the word efficiently and effectively, even while she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments and entered clinical drug trials with strong side effects.
She met with President Biden when he came to Boston to deliver his “Cancer Moonshot Initiative” speech. Her story was featured on “Good Morning America,” as well as many local media outlets. It gained momentum as it went.
“I do think it was therapeutic,” Eppich said. “There was an enormous amount of comments from people, and those really helped Heather and her family keep going. People with glioblastoma all over the country started seeing her story and reaching out and saying, ‘Thank you.’ ”
On March 13, 2022, the day of Kevin Garnett’s jersey retirement ceremony at TD Garden, Walker was honored as a “Hero Among Us” during an in-game ceremony recognizing her efforts raising money and awareness for the fight against cancer.
The Celtics released a lengthy statement following Walker’s death, saying, in part:
“Heather Walker was a boundlessly charismatic, giving, and selfless soul. Every room she entered was brighter for her presence. As anyone who knew her could attest, her abundant positive energy and kindness should not be mistaken for any lack of fortitude or determination when such qualities were required.”
Eppich offered a more succinct summary of her friend’s essence.
“Heather,” she said, “was a badass.”