UNION — Col. William J. Whitener’s decades of service to Union County and the friendships he made during that time were remembered Wednesday by those he worked with and mentored over the years.
Whitener died early Wednesday morning, just one day after being honored as Union County’s Veteran of the Year for 2012.
A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a decorated military veteran, Whitener served in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He also served as the Chief of Staff at West Point from 1967-69.
Whitener’s career of service was not limited to the military, but continued after he retired to Union County.
From 1977 to 1984, Whitener served as dean of USC Union and it was there that Union County Museum Director Ola Jean Kelly said she first got to know him. She said Whitener was a mentor and friend who worked with her on behalf of the museum and the community as a whole.
“He encouraged me in everything,” Kelly said. “I first got to know him when I went to college at 40, he was dean at USC Union. He always quoted to all the students ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for,’ to encourage the students including me to keep trying. Then he hired me to work at the museum. We served together on the founding board of the Union Community Foundation. We have lost a hero.”
Dr. Stephen Lowe, USC Union interim dean, pointed out that Whitener continued to be involved with the university long after his tenure as dean ended.
“His passing is going to be a great loss,” Lowe said. “Even though he has not been dean here for many years he was always involved with the university and participated in many of the university’s activities.
“He was a great friend to the university and although I didn’t get as many chances to talk with him as I would have liked, I considered him a friend and mentor,” he said. “I’m sure that sentiment is shared by anyone who knew him.”
Whitener’s educational activities also included service as interim chancellor of the University of South Carolina Spartanburg from 1993 to 1994 and membership on the S.C. Commission Higher Education from 1998 to 1993.
In addition to his involvement in higher education, Whitener also engaged in a number of community activities including the preservation of the history of Union County.
Buddy Smith, Union County Historical Society president, said that Whitener was deeply involved in the society’s activities and was instrumental in establishing then reestablishing the museum.
“He was past president and president emeritus of the Historical Society,” Smith said. “He was involved in the setting up the museum initially in the 1970s. When the museum closed and then reopened in 2004, he was the driving force to reestablish the museum at its current location. He was also instrumental in in guiding the purchase of the Cross Keys House and location.”
Whitener was also chairman of the Union County Historic Trail Committee which developed a trail linking the county’s historic sites.
The Union County Rotary Club was another organization that benefited from Whitener’s membership.
“He was one of the most knowledgeable people about Rotary that I’ve known,” Neil Howell, club president, said. “He had his Fireside Chats where he would brief new members about Rotary.
“His presence just seemed to give a lot more meaning to what he was involved in,” he said. “He was just so well-respected that people were willing to follow him in any endeavor he needed help in.”
Whitener’s other community activities including serving as first chairman of the Union Community Foundation; contributing to the development of the Timken Sports Complex; and serving as an ex-oficio member of the Union County’s 2020 Advisory Committee.
His record of service led to Whitener receiving a number of awards and honors over the years including being named Veteran of the Year in 2008 and 2012; being presented with the state Palmetto Patriot Award in 2010; and being presented with Union County’s Centennial Cornerstone Award in 2011 with the plaque he was given now on display in the courthouse.
Supervisor Tommy Sinclair described Whitener as a cornerstone of the community.
“Every community has a kind of foundation or cornerstone and Col. Whitener was certainly one of the underpinnings of this community,” Sinclair said. “He was recognized as such when we relaid the cornerstone for the courthouse last year.
“Kathy and I extend our condolences to Packie and Martha on the death of their husband and father,” he said. “I will miss him personally and professionally. Col. Whitener in many senses of the word was my ‘battle buddy’ and as a soldier he would surely understand that.”
Editor Charles Warner can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 14, or by email at email@example.com