Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Norlan G. and Sheron R. Walker: Service in the Nuclear Age

Norlan G. and Sheron R. Walker: Service in the Nuclear Age

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 01, 2012

Between 1951 and 1962, the Nevada Test Site northwest of Las Vegas was the location of exactly 100 above-ground nuclear blasts and hundreds more below-ground tests. The atmospheric tests were the fun ones, of course, you could sit in your hotel room in Las Vegas and marvel at the mushroom clouds some 65 miles away. If you were in the military, you might have an even closer view. These were awesome glimpses of unimaginable power – but not to worry, you were safe: Tests were conducted only when the desert breezes blew away from Las Vegas and the heavily populated Southern California regions beyond. To show you exactly how safe it all was, the federal government even drove carloads of ranchers out to see the Test Site after some blasts (giving the dust a couple of hours to settle safely first, of course).

If the wind was blowing away from Las Vegas and Southern California, it was still blowing … somewhere. Across the deserts of central Nevada … and southern Utah … and northern Arizona. But that was okay, wasn’t it? There weren’t many people there, were there? And anyway, the government promised the few people who were there that it was all safe, and necessary, and patriotic. Even when tens of thousands of sheep died or aborted their malformed lambs, the tests were proclaimed safe.

But in the 1960s and ‘70s, when childhood leukemia, and thyroid cancer, and esophageal cancer – and so many cases of breast cancer that the locals began referring to their “tribe of one-breasted women” – too-few-people-to-worry-about began to question. And complain. Loudly. The “Downwinder” movement was born. It took years of gathering statistical evidence, and lawsuits, and lobbying Congress, but in 1990 Pres. George H.W. Bush signed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act funding reparations – a minimum of $50,000 each – to cancer victims, or their survivors, who could demonstrate that they had lived in the affected areas for two years during 1951-1958, or during July 1962, a month of unprecedented testing and poisonous fallout.


But assume you are the surviving child of a parent who lived in the affected area and died of one of the identified cancers. How are you going to prove that your mother was there? You know she was – you listened to her stories of life on the ranch near Cedar City, and you can prove she graduated from Cedar City High School in 1966 because her picture is in the yearbook – but how do you prove, how do you document to the satisfaction of a government bureaucrat, that enough of her childhood was spent in Iron County during the mid- to late-1950s for her to qualify for Downwinder compensation? Oh, you may think it’s easy enough – “just get her elementary school records,” you might say – but do you know where to find them, or who to call, or if they still exist? The money is there, and it might pay the last of those lingering medical bills, or send your kids to the college you couldn’t attend because your dying mother needed you … but how do you prove your eligibility?


In 1990, Sheron R. Walker of Kaysville, Utah, was volunteering a few hours a week as a service missionary helping the Church locate members it had lost touch with, when the mission office asked if she’d be willing to tackle a brand new program. She agreed, and later that year, upon his retirement, her husband Norlan G. Walker joined her. Except for a two-year full-time mission in Sydney, Australia, the Walkers have been serving in that “new program” ever since. Ten or twelve other couples have assisted them from time to time, but for these past 20 years, Elder and Sister Walker have labored steadily on.

Their project turned out to be a service to help the Downwinders document their presence in the affected areas during the time of the nuclear blasts. People who believe they are eligible fill out an application providing information on the places they lived and the dates they lived there, and other helpful information, and the Walkers turn to the records of the Church to search for documentation.

Typically they first evaluate the applicant’s residence to be sure that he or she lived within the covered area. That area has changed from time to time as the government added or subtracted counties, but the Walkers have long since learned every tiny inhabited place in the affected area and no longer need to consult their maps.

Then they check the church census – that survey of Church membership that was taken in 1914, 1920, 1925, 1930, and so on regularly (with the exception of war-disrupted 1945) through 1950 and 1960. Oh, and 1962. Perhaps someone somewhere knows why the Church took a census in 1962 when it had just completed one in 1960, but I don’t. If, however, the applicant appears on the Church census in the affected area in two of those censuses – or even in 1962 alone – that pretty well nails an applicant’s residence eligibility for compensation.

If more confirming evidence is needed, the Walkers then turn to ward records. Was the applicant a visiting teacher? Did the applicant’s family accept visits from the home teachers? Was the applicant named on a Sunday School roll, or did he teach the Teachers’ Quorum, or was she the secretary of the Relief Society? If so, the Walkers take notes on the evidence and compile the documentation for the government.

The Walkers sat across a small table from me on a recent afternoon describing the work they have engaged in at least one day a week, or more when a backlog of applications requires it, month after month, year after year – and now, it can legitimately be said – decade after decade. Like all Church Service Missionaries, this work is performed on a voluntary basis. In the Walkers’ case it isn’t only the contribution of their time: gasoline for the 40-mile round trip each week should be counted as a significant monetary donation.

By now they must have helped thousands of cancer victims or their survivors demonstrate their eligibility. They beamed as they mentioned a few of those whom they have helped, including one friend, the widow of a cancer patient, who used her compensation to finance a mission of her own. They regret the times they have been unable to help – when people were not members of the Church, or were so inactive that they refused home and visiting teachers, their names simply won’t appear in the records available to the Walkers. They told me about one case of a child who lived far away from the fallout area during the school year, but who visited her grandmother in the affected area every summer; because she was a visitor, her name wasn’t listed on the Primary rolls. But they have been able to help uncounted others, and they are proud of their high accuracy rates reflected in periodic federal audits of their research.

You wouldn’t know from looking at them that the Walkers are 78 and 79 years old – “We were young when we started this!” laughed Sister Walker – because they radiate that happiness and goodness that seems to fill the souls of the Annas and Simeons who devote their senior years to service. Elder Walker has had some serious health scares, but reports that he has just received the “all clear” signal from the last scare, so there is no slowing down in his future.

Very few of the many they have helped know their names – but that’s not why they serve.

If someone you know may be eligible for coverage under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act but needs help documenting residence, contact RECA Research, Global Service Center, 120 North 200 West, Salt Lake City, UT 84103-1514, 1-801-240-3500 and ask for a research application. I’m told that many bishops in the affected zone have applications in their offices, as well.

It might be fun to discuss the politics or environmental issues at large, but please, let’s have discussion here focus on the service of the Walkers and others like them who are Church Service Missionaries.



  1. Wow, incredible service. Good for them, and thanks to you, Ardis, for sharing.

    Comment by Paul — May 1, 2012 @ 8:34 am

  2. What a great post. Who knew projects like this existed? This seems like it would be such a satisfying thing to work on – a rare case where a few knowledgeable individuals really can make a big difference. Good for the Walkers!

    Comment by E. Wallace — May 1, 2012 @ 8:44 am

  3. This is good work–both the doing, and the telling. Makes me proud to be a Mormon. Thanks, Elder and Sister Walker, and thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Kristine — May 1, 2012 @ 9:05 am

  4. This is a wonderful story in so many ways. The Walkers, through their great hearts and using the wisdom and order of the Church organization, are doing something that blesses so many lives and simply could not be done any other way.

    And of course Ardis makes it her own mission to honor these gems of humanity. The Walkers show humility themselves, but that is no reason WE can’t celebrate them!

    Dear Walkers, thank you for your service to your fellows, and we wish you long life and much happiness!

    Comment by Ellen — May 1, 2012 @ 9:07 am

  5. That’s amazing. I’ll forward this post to some people with ties to the area who may be interested in learning about these amazing service missionaries.

    Comment by Amy T — May 1, 2012 @ 9:21 am

  6. This is an issue that really hits home for me.

    Thanks for profiling the wonderful work of Elder and Sister Walker. What an incredibly important service they have rendered their fellow man. Such “everyday heroes” need to be recognized and honored both for the work they do and the example they set.

    Comment by Mina — May 1, 2012 @ 9:33 am

  7. Nice story Ardis. I feel sorry for the people who couldn’t prove they were there because they didn’t go to church. I also feel sorry for all those that the government lied to while conducting the nuclear tests. I’m grateful to the Walkers for their efforts in getting some restitution to the victims.

    Comment by SteveR — May 1, 2012 @ 9:34 am

  8. What an amazing lifetime of service! God be thanked for people like the Walkers.

    And thanks Ardis for posting this. (And that picture of Las Vegas with the mushroom cloud in the distance. I remembered reading about people sitting up at nights to see the sky light up with the explosions, but I hadn’t known that the clouds could be seen from Las Vegas.)

    Comment by Mark B. — May 1, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  9. Wow. That’s a benefit of being active in the Church I never would have thought of.

    Comment by The Other Clark — May 1, 2012 @ 10:28 am

  10. It really pleases me to know about this project. Yet another demonstration of the value of historical record-keeping–you never know the uses to which records will be put in the future. The Walkers have done some amazing acts of service for people affected by the tests.

    Comment by Elaine T. — May 1, 2012 @ 10:55 am

  11. Wow, great story! That’s really going the extra mile.

    My mother lived south of Las Vegas in the early to mid-50s. I need to ask her how much she saw of the bomb testing.

    Once again, Ardis, great job bring to light some unsung heros!

    Comment by lindberg — May 1, 2012 @ 12:53 pm

  12. I had no idea such a program existed. What a great service opportunity. I’ve had contact with church service missionaries on a number of occasions, and they all seem to be happy and loving their work.

    Looking forward to it myself, someday.

    Comment by kevinf — May 1, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

  13. The things you learn! I had no idea there was such a thing as a ‘church census’ either. Thanks for sharing this.

    Comment by Anne (UK) — May 1, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

  14. The phrase that springs to my mind is “a marvellous work and a wonder”. God bless the Walkers.

    Comment by Alison — May 1, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

  15. “Oh, and 1962. Perhaps someone somewhere knows why the Church took a census in 1962 when it had just completed one in 1960, but I don’t.”

    Hmmmm…Perhaps this is why.

    Comment by Julie — May 1, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

  16. What a wonderful work they are doing.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — May 1, 2012 @ 11:43 pm

  17. Hats off to the Walkers for their tireless and relentless efforts in aiding so many of these people.

    Comment by Jeff Taylor — May 2, 2012 @ 9:58 am

  18. I have family members who were among those exposed to nasty unanticipated fallout after winds shifted following atmospheric tests. One died of anaplastic thyroid carcinoma in 1983. The other is fighting thymus cancer right now. Both have links to radiation exposure. And both had moved away from Southern Utah, or were only there visiting during the period of the exposures. Most those no longer in the area are unaware of the compensation available to victims of these tests.

    Comment by Jeff Taylor — May 2, 2012 @ 10:01 am

  19. Thank you to the Walkers for their continued devotion and service. This is a remarkable length of time and detailed digging into the records.

    Research in the early 1990s showed that the prevaling winds carried most of the radiation over the more populous northern Utah. But since the population there was more mobile, proof of the effects of radiation could only be shown by the sudden increase in cancer in the more generationally stable smaller Southern Utan towns. Two of my siblings are downwinder victims. I’m glad that there has been some compensation for the rural families with so few options and no vote regarding the testing.

    Comment by charlene — May 3, 2012 @ 10:19 am

  20. I finally happened to cross paths with the Walkers this morning to show them this post (they ordinarily don’t use a computer). You made their day with your enthusiastic appreciation of the work they are doing. Thanks for expressing it!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 30, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  21. Ardis,

    Thanks so much for sharing this post. In the college history courses I teach, I discuss the downwinders. When, as an undergraduate at BYU, I first learned about the atomic testing at the Nevada Test Site and all the cancer deaths, I was profoundly grateful that neither my parents nor their parents or grandparents, all of whom lived in Iron and Washington Counties during the testing, has gotten cancer. With the passage of years, I have learned of numerous distant relatives (downwinders all) who have battled cancer. And then, to my great horror, my father got cancer. He was able to prove residency and got the monetary compensation. Since then, my lecture that deals with the downwinders has (naturally) taken on much more personal significance.

    Amy T. just made me aware of this post. So very very interesting!!

    Comment by Dale Topham — April 21, 2014 @ 6:11 pm

  22. It’s been nearly two years since this was posted, and the Walkers continue to come in to the Library and work to document the residency of other downwinders. So much good, done so quietly.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 21, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

  23. If this is the Sheron & Norlan Walker that I know, and I think it is, they lived in my Ward in Centerville. Wonderful people and I am sure their service is helping multitudes of down-winders, including some in my own family!

    Comment by Gayle Heaton Hartelt — January 3, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

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