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CARBONDALE - James Walker, the first black to serve as president of the two-campus, 35,000-student Southern Illinois University system, has died after a long bout with prostate cancer. He was 64.

Walker, who came to SIU from the president's job at Middle Tennessee State University in 2000, died Sunday afternoon at his home in rural Carbondale, said David Gross, an SIU spokesman.

Walker had been on medical leave from the SIU job since September, about three months after he announced he would retire by this summer as the system's fifth president, making good on his pledge that he would leave the post when he was 65. Although Walker previously had been treated for prostate cancer, he said when he stepped away that health issues were not part of his decision.

In November, the university's Board of Trustees tapped former congressman Glenn Poshard to succeed Walker as chief executive of the university system, which has an annual budget of roughly $665 million. Poshard took the system's helm Jan. 1.

"Dr. Walker was recognized as one of the most accomplished and dedicated higher education professionals in this country," Poshard said in a statement Monday. "He was a caring and decent man who accomplished a great deal for Southern Illinois University through his positive outlook on life and his wonderful sense of humor."

Poshard credited Walker with providing "stable and experienced leadership to the SIU system at a critical point in our history."

Walker succeeded Ted Sanders, whose tumultuous 5-year tenure as SIU president ended with his resignation in early 2000. Sanders had been a key figure in a dysfunctional period for the university that began in 1997 with heated union contract negotiations. Tensions reached a peak in the summer of 1999 with the firing of Jo Ann Argersinger, the Carbondale school's chancellor.

In May 2001, Walker named Walter Wendler - then a Texas A&M University vice chancellor - to lead the Carbondale school.

Walker "brought leadership stability to SIU at a time we certainly needed it," said Rob Benford, an SIU sociology professor serving as president of the SIU Faculty Senate. "I think he had a vision for the university, and I think that helped get us focused on goal-setting and working together."

Under Walker's watch, SIU got millions of dollars in federal research grants involving coal, agriculture, biofuels, health care and education. Walker also oversaw various big-money construction projects, including the $40 million renovation of the Carbondale campus' Morris Library and work toward the university's $21 million Cancer Institute planned in Springfield.

During Walker's tenure at SIU, private contributions to the university's foundation rose by 30 percent.

"I always found him to be a very devoted and charismatic leader," said Benford, who fondly remembers Walker's deep, booming voice. "You just always knew you were in the presence of a very strong leader."

Walker spent more than three decades in higher education, his first job more than three decades ago as an assistant professor of education at SIU in Edwardsville.

Before serving as Middle Tennessee State's president for about a decade, Walker was provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Northern Colorado.

Funeral arrangements were pending, Gross said Monday.

An Alabama native, Walker got his bachelor's degree in biology from Alabama State University in 1963, his master's degree in special education from Atlanta University in 1967 and his doctorate in education in 1972 from Pennsylvania State University. He also was a graduate of the Harvard University Institute for Educational Management.

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