LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Wal-Mart heir John T. Walton, who threw his considerable financial support behind efforts to educate low-income children, has died in the crash of a homemade, experimental aircraft.
Walton, of Jackson, Wyo., crashed shortly after takeoff Monday from Jackson Hole Airport in Grand Teton National Park, the company said. The cause of the crash was not known and will be investigated, officials said. Walton was 58.
"I think all you can say is he was just a good man and today, you grieve," Jay Allen, Wal-Mart senior vice president of corporate affairs, told The Morning News of Springdale.
Walton, one of three sons of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and a member of the company's board, was a major advocate of school vouchers, supporting efforts to create taxpayer-funded ways for students to attend private schools.
Walton founded the Children's Scholarship Fund in 1998 to provide low-income families with money to send their children to private schools. The foundation started with $67 million from the Walton Family Foundation and benefited more than 67,000 children.
In March, Forbes magazine listed John Walton as No. 11 on its list of the world's richest people with a net worth of $18.2 billion. He was tied with his brother Jim, one spot behind his brother Rob, and just ahead of his sister, Alice, and his mother, Helen.
"I certainly have nothing negative to say about the man at all. He was a prince," said Walton's former wife, Washington County Circuit Judge Mary Ann Gunn. "He loved to build things. He loved motorcycles. He built his own motorcycle."
The plane he died flying was an experimental ultralight aircraft with a small, gasoline-powered engine and wings wrapped in fabric similar to heavy-duty sail cloth, officials said.
Joan Anzelmo, a spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park, said rangers will investigate the crash, as is done with any major accident in the park. She said officials also notified the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board.
"Because this is a homemade, non-registered, experimental aircraft, at least today they told us there was not going to an investigation," she said.
She said Walton, "well-known and much-loved in this valley, died doing something that he loved to do."
Jim Courtovich, who spent two years getting the Children's Scholarship Fund off the ground, said Walton was a devoted sponsor who "didn't just donate money, he donated time and energy." Walton would clear days at a time from his schedule to focus on the project, he said.
Courtovich also said that Walton was down to earth and, like his father, not above doing chores himself. One time, skiing in Jackson Hole, he said Walton "had to leave early because he had to caulk his chimney."
John Walton was a major stakeholder in Wal-Mart, with about 12 million shares of the company's stock. He also shared ownership of about 1.7 billion shares with his family in a joint partnership called Walton Enterprises LLC. Walton joined the board of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in 1992.
John Walton was an Army veteran who served with the Green Berets as a medic during the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Silver Star for saving the lives of several members of his unit while under enemy fire, according to the company.
He attended the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, and served as a board member of the Walton Family Foundation, which played a key role in fundraising in the University of Arkansas' recent Campaign for the 21st Century. The Walton family made a $300 million gift to the campaign in 2002.
Besides his mother and siblings, Walton is survived by his wife, Christy, and son, Luke.