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Aleta Walther’s method of funding her education at Morton College in the early 1980s was rather unorthodox. Her winnings as a jockey at Hawthorne and Sportsman’s, the area’s two horse racing venues, went toward tuition.
But Walther, hooked on horses since the age of 4 while growing up in Lake County, knew she wasn’t going to be riding in the Kentucky Derby. She enjoyed some success as a jockey, riding 36 winners in 1978 at Sportsman’s, Hawthorne and Balmoral.
“One day, I woke up and said, ‘I can’t do this,’” Walther said. “I wasn’t making any money. And women were not accepted as jockeys. I remember one owner telling me, ‘My wife will never let me hire a woman jockey.’”
But a scholarship Walther received at Morton College named “Women on Their Way” certainly could be the title of her life story.
When one door closes, Walther always seems to find the next open door that takes her to a new adventure whether it be in horse racing, journalism, public relations, Alaskan nature guide or award-winning photographer.
Morton College’s door opened for Walther because of its convenient location just blocks away from Hawthorne and Sportsman’s. Look to the east out the window in a third floor stairway of B Building and you can see the light towers at Hawthorne in the distance.
“Morton College was right there, so I decided to go to Morton College,” Walther said. “I found the instructors to be flexible because they knew I was juggling a job and school.”
Lyn Rains Anderson, an English instructor and Collegian faculty advisor, remembered Walther as an excellent student, kind-hearted individual and someone who spoke her mind.
“She always smiled,” Rains said. “She had those beautiful brown eyes – all full of life. When the college would hold rummage sales in the cafeteria, she would bring workers over from the track to find things they could wear. She always was thinking of others.”
Walther, who was in her mid-20s at Morton College, was a bit of a novelty. She found cross country as a vehicle to keep her weight down as a jockey. Walther had never ran cross country, but wound up being the second woman in Morton College history to qualify for the national meet. Matter of fact, Walther represented Morton College at nationals twice in 1980 and ’81.
“I was the only full-time female runner on the team,” Walther recalled. “I trained with the boys. We didn’t have a full-time coach and I had to pay half the costs for my shoes. That’s how it was back then.”
Had it not been for Morton College and her mentors in Anderson and language arts instructor Franklean Haley, Walther admits her life today would be very different.
“Haley required students to maintain a journal,” Walther recalls. “At the end of the semester, she chose several student entries to share with the class as examples of good writing. One of them was mine. After class she asked if I had ever thought about a writing career. I had not, but she encouraged me to consider a writing profession and introduced me to Lyn.”
Walther joined the Collegian, the student newspaper, and wrote an article about toxic shock syndrome in female tampons. Rains, who recalled the story as being “pretty wild in those days,” submitted Walther’s article for a student journalism competition.
“The committee rejected my submission,” Walther recalled. “They said, ‘It was too good.’ Lyn was furious. I had a lot of research on the article, even calling Proctor and Gamble to get information. It disappointed me and her. Lyn was someone very supportive of my career.”
Walther gained valuable further journalism experience by writing the weekly student column on the happenings at Morton College for The LIFE Newspapers.
Walther’s combination of being a jockey, trainer and college student made for good copy, too. John Brokopp, the longtime publicist at Hawthorne and Sportsman’s, couldn’t have asked for a better subject to promote horse racing than Walther.
The late Dave Feldman, the legendary Chicago Sun-Times horse racing writer, featured Walther in a column, titled “Busy trainer loves her life.” Feldman suggested Walther start a trainer’s class or open a jockey school at Morton College.
“Dave Feldman claimed I looked like Carol Burnett,” Walther recalled. “He was one of my best supporters.”
Walther didn’t leave Morton College with an associate’s degree after two years, but she was on her way in the profession. She covered the horse racing industry for the Daily Oklahoman, a statewide publication with a circulation of 250,000. Walther moved on to write about the business of sports, including horse racing, for the Oklahoma Journal-Record, a daily newspaper.
“I kept getting better jobs in newspapers,” Walther said.
She also went to earn her degree in journalism at Central Oklahoma University, where Walther received the school’s Milton W. Reynolds Award for journalistic professionalism.
Walther also worked as the special sections editor at the Orange County Register. But by the early 1990s, Walther realized she needed to plot her career move.
“I was watching a simulcast horse race in New Mexico,” Walther said. “There was this thing called the internet. I realized I was in two dying industries – newspapers and horse racing. I moved to California to pursue corporate communications.”
Walther did PR for a tech start-up company, then was a partner in a private PR firm before joining Grainger in suburban Lake Forest. It soon became time for Walther to make her next career move, but being shown the door proved to be a blessing.
“I was sitting at a desk,” Walther said. “My wrist hurt. My back and neck hurt from horse racing injuries. I was getting heavier. I determined my job was killing me.”
It was 2008 and the U.S. was in the thick of a financial crisis in the housing market. The door at Grainger closed, and for Walther, the timing couldn’t have been better.
“I was laid off on a Wednesday and I couldn’t have been happier,” Walther said. “I definitely wanted to look for something different.”
Walther, who lives off the Pacific Ocean in the California coastal community of San Clemente, splits her time between running her own award-winning full-service public relations firm (PR Writer Pro) and working for an Alaskan tour company offering whale watching excursions, nature hikes and historic town tours from April through September. She maintains a blog on her Alaskan experiences.
She also teaches environmental education to children at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, CA.
“My philosophy in PR is to tell the truth,” Walther said. “Too much spin will come back to haunt you.”
After leaving Grainger, Walther started own her PR firm. She briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a park ranger in Orange County. After going through the training program, Walther realized the job entailed everything, but not enough nature promotion and environmental protection.
Today, Walther has two LinkedIn accounts – one for her public relations side and the second for the naturalist part of her life.
“I love learning,” Walther said. “You can thank Morton College for that. Morton College gave me a lot of opportunities and set me up for the rest of my life.
“I found my calling at Morton College. Had it not been for Morton College, I never would have finished my degree, much less my successful and fulfilling journalism career.”