Walter and the boys shot hoops in the driveway. A former rink rat, Byers helped coach his sons' youth hockey teams. (Remember, though, don't press him on this top-secret subject.) He also was an all-city center in football. But Byers did not stress athletics with his children. "Though intense in his pursuit of quality," says Ward, "I don't remember him being an intense competitor when he played with us. He watched us play, but he never promoted sports over everything else."
In 1977, Byers married Betty Sooby, whom he had met several years before. (Ward Byers and Betty's son, Brad, were fourth grade classmates in Shawnee Mission public schools.) Byers, whom admirers have called "brilliant" but never "warm," required Betty to sign a prenuptial agreement. It prevented her from seeking alimony or property settlement in the event of divorce. Byers first filed for divorce against her in May 1982. Betty counterfiled and was granted a divorce on Dec. 16, 1982.
"I was in love with him and probably willing to do just about anything," Betty says. "I didn't realize there was anything about divorce in there. You don't go into a marriage thinking about a divorce. He really shouldn't be married. He can't share. He can't trust."
The one constant in the private life of Walter Byers—a life so orderly and routine that Betty said, "You could almost set your clock by it"—has been his Seven Cross ranch in the northern reaches of the Flint Hills in Pottawatomie County, halfway between Topeka and Manhattan. The ranch covers more than 6,950 acres, about 3,000 of which are owned by Byers; he leases the rest. With the help of ranch foreman Vern Boswell, 60, Boswell's son, Ken, and one other ranch hand, Byers runs about 1,100 head of cattle, the majority suckling calves and yearlings. There are 61 miles offence on the gently rolling property, and Byers and the hands put up 2,000 bales of hay annually. He is mostly a self-taught rancher, but it's apparently in his blood. Byers, a small Texas town just north of Wichita Falls, was named after Walter's grandfather, who once owned a 35,000-acre ranch between Wichita Falls and the Red River. Walter's father, Ward, a Kansas City real estate man, was the one who purchased the original 774 acres of the ranch back in 1924. Walter inherited the property in 1968 after his father's death.
For the last 20 years he has kept meticulous notes (for Byers, there are no other kind) in a stockman's journal: time of his arrival, weather, grass conditions. "It's very meaningful to him," says Ellen, "because his father and grandfather were in ranching, and there is, I'm sure, a sense of preserving history."
Around the ranch Byers is able to relax. "You'd never know he wasn't ol' farmer Brown," says Vern Boswell. "When he comes out he doesn't put on a fancy shirt. He's strictly a cow man. You'll see him in his blue jeans, his western hat and his high-top Tony Lama boots, probably with some spurs on." Local folks just call him Walt and don't give a damn about the graduation rate at UNLV or the pulpit-thumping of Dale Brown at LSU. Byers does a little reading—Betty recalls that he went through "a Shakespeare period"—looks after the cattle, rides an aging quarterhorse named Levi, talks about the rain, muses about the relative worth of Big Blue Stem and Little Blue Stem grass, and reads such journals as Grass & Grain. He was considered "a city guy" when he first started ranching, and his neighbors weren't eager to help out. But Byers was eager to learn. "Well," said Vern, "get your butt in a pickup and I'll show ya'." Now, says. Boswell, "He's very, very knowledgeable." Vern Boswell is probably the only man who has told Walter Byers to get his rear end in a pickup.
From all accounts, Byers is a different person when he's home on the range. "He can change his whole personality out there at the drop of a coin," says Betty. "It was interesting, but a little hard to deal with. I looked forward to those weekends because I felt Walter had left the NCAA and we were closer."
But even around the ranch, he keeps the world at bay and rarely opens up. There's a great deal of mutual respect between Byers and the elder Boswell, yet the foreman learned of Byers' impending retirement from the newspaper. Many of Byers' closest associates, like Jernstedt and Dave Cawood, the NCAA's assistant executive director for communications, have never been invited to the ranch. Nor has Duke, though he has known Byers for almost 40 years. None feels slighted either—that's just the way the Solitary Man operates.
The ranch is not only his refuge from the present, it's also his link to the past and his legacy for the future. His three children have bought a 500-acre addition to the ranch known as Four Corners. Now Byers has everything he wants at the ranch—serenity, security and preservation of his own history.
By all accounts he never wanted to be anything except what he is. Certainly he could have run for office, if not on his personality, then at least on his record. A conservative Republican, he does have a passing interest in politics, a subject he will discuss from time to time. But there is no Happy Chandler in the man. Captain of industry? Surely his bottom-line efficiency and experience make him a candidate. But there is no Lee Iacocca in the man.