Linwood Sexton in 2006. After graduating from the University of Wichita, Sexton worked full-time at Steffen’s Dairy, later Hiland Dairy, from 1953 until 2012. The Wichita Eagle File photo
Linwood Sexton in 2006. After graduating from the University of Wichita, Sexton worked full-time at Steffen’s Dairy, later Hiland Dairy, from 1953 until 2012. The Wichita Eagle File photo

Bob Lutz

Linwood Sexton made lives better through the power of his personality

March 30, 2017 11:26 AM

UPDATED March 30, 2017 11:30 AM

There are wood benches just outside the clubhouse at the MacDonald Park golf course and Linwood Sexton, once a great athlete and forever a great man, planted himself at the one farthest north every day.

It could be 110 degrees or it could be 45 degrees. Didn’t matter.

There sat Linwood with an unlit cigar in his mouth, a flat cap on his head and a song, I’m sure, in his heart. He was that kind of guy.

Everywhere Linwood went — and he was literally everywhere, all the time — he brought joy. He made every person he interacted with feel special. He was the ultimate people person in a world gone standoffish.

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Sexton did the unthinkable Wednesday. He died, at the age of 90. If ever a man was going to live forever, if ever a man needed to live forever, it was Linwood.

Less than two weeks after the death of another Wichita and Wichita State sports icon, Dave Stallworth, the loss of Sexton feels like a knockout punch to a city that revered both men, both of whom were larger than life.

At MacDonald Park on Thursday, the wet and cold weather kept the golfers away. Assistant pro Colin O’Bryan said he learned of Sexton’s death after arriving at work in the morning.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “He’s just been a fixture here for so long. Everybody here loved him. Up until just a few months ago, he brought us ice cream bars from Hiland Dairy. He’d always stock our freezer back in the kitchen so employees could have them.”

At Hiland Dairy, on Central just north of downtown, Thursday’s mood was also somber.

A woman who worked just a few feet from where Sexton worked as a salesman — he started in 1953 at Steffen’s Dairy, which became Hiland — was asked if she cared to share some of her memories.

She declined.

“Too emotional,” she whispered.

Those who barely knew Linwood, who weren’t in his company often, were struck hard by news of his death. Imagine how those who saw him nearly every day felt.

Sexton retired from Hiland in 2012, said Jerald Gray, the company’s general manager.

“For a day,” he said. “He immediately came back on a part-time basis.”

A year ago, though, Sexton made retirement official, although he still showed up at Hiland events around town, including the River Festival, where Hiland sponsors the annual ice cream social.

That’s the thing about Linwood. He showed up. To everything.

As a former University of Wichita football great, sports were important to Sexton. He was a fixture at City League football and basketball games for decades and also showed support to his hometown of Halstead, where he and his late wife, Delores, raised their son.

Delores, who taught at Dunbar School and Peterson Elementary in west Wichita for 30 years, died in 2000, when she was 69.

“It took Linwood a while after that to come around, to really be Linwood again,” said Mark Ballinger, a district sales manager at Hiland whose mother taught with Delores at Peterson.

Ultimately, though, Sexton found solace in the presence of others. He couldn’t resist what came naturally, to interact and care for the people who knew and even those he didn’t. As trite as it sounds, Linwood never met a stranger. He had a deep, husky voice and a gleam in his eye and it took him no time at all to win people over.

“He was a great ambassador for us here at Hiland,” Ballinger said. “If you took him to a restaurant, he knew half of the people there. And the other half knew who he was. He was just a great person to be around.”

There is irony to Sexton’s life. A black man, he was mistreated as an athlete because of his race. When the Shocker football team went on the road to places like West Texas State or Tulsa, Sexton didn’t make the trip because he wouldn’t be allowed to play. He couldn’t stay in the same hotels or eat with teammates in other cities. He was shunned.

Yet none of that created bitterness. Sexton had friends from all walks off life, from all races and from all social circles. It was natural for him to build people up because he seemed to know no other way even though others had torn him down early in his life.

Sexton loved where he was from. He graduated from East High and spoke endearingly about living much of his adult life in Halstead. He wanted to be a part of things, so many things. It’s impossible to imagine him sitting at home with a TV remote in his hands because there were so many other things for him to do.

Yet there he was, on that park bench near the No. 1 tee at Mac Park, almost every day. Often he was alone, greeting people as they approached the tee box for their first shot of a round. Or asking those finishing 18 holes how they played.

“We always have our Friday games here,” said Ron Rush, who has worked in maintenance at MacDonald Park for more than 30 years. “Linwood was always on that bench, wanting to know how we did.”

Golf at Mac won’t be the same. Life in Wichita won’t be the same. We’ve lost a pillar, a man who made us all better whether we knew him or not.