Robert Whitton’s Legacy: Living Fully, Laughing Often, Loving Every Moment

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Update: Huffington Post link to article about Robert Whitton by Kevin Bell ’05.

On Saturday morning Nov. 19 at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, we celebrated the life of Robert Clark Whitton, even as we grieved his death. Robert died on Nov. 11 as the result of injuries sustained when he was struck by a car on Nov. 3 on Concord Road at Faculty Drive in Davidson.

On Saturday at the front door of DCPC, I took a bulletin from Robert’s math colleague and now memorial service usher Tim Chartier, both of us stone-faced with a composure that we did not feel and dared not breach. Inside, the sanctuary was already packed. I followed the crowd upstairs and squeezed into a space beside some students. I heard some sniffles, already. Some of these kids, I realized, were facing their first big loss of a loved one.

When the Student Government Association honored Robert Whitton with its Faculty Award last spring, they declared him "a great teacher in and out of the classroom."

Loved one. That he was, Robert, a loved one, to many. I patted my pocket full of Kleenex, which I had folded neatly and individually “just so” back at the car, so that if I needed to share, it would be clear to the sharee that I was offering a clean Kleenex, not a vintage one. This detail would have made Robert laugh, I had thought, sitting there in the parking lot, which made me bawl, which made me use one of the Kleenexes, which made me have to fold up another one to replenish the “share” pile, which would have made him laugh again, ad infinitum like a Three Stooges routine. Robert loved him some Stooges.

During the memorial service, when the student a cappella group The Delilahs, whom Robert served as advisor, sang “Hallelujah,” no one in the place could have moved a muscle if the pulpit had caught fire. And when the entire Wildcat football team filed in along the side aisles in their jerseys with heads held high, the collective catching of our breath from all around was audible, a sob in reverse, held tight. I saw Robert’s beloved, Amy Diamond, turn clean around in the front pew, beaming, to behold the long red line of Wildcats. The look on her face was triumphant, a combination of astonishment, delight, gratitude and joy.

Amy, as well as Robert’s five children, have set that tone from the start, as they met whatever came at them with abundant grace and no small sense of humor. Thank you, Amy, and Allison, Sarah, Katherine, Michael, and Amanda. Thank you for helping us, too, face pain with strength.

When Cole Barton shared a few favorite Guy Clark lyrics and fly-fishing stories, Robert’s own grace and humor shone through as only the dearest of our old friends can help us shine.

John Kuykendall, from the pulpit, voiced our communal powerlessness to answer the question of why Robert died. Then John helped us turn the darkness of pain and loss back around toward light, asking us why Robert lived. When he put it that way, there seemed a great deal more to work with.

Through it all, the spirit of the day came back around to celebrating. Already, in the line stretching from DCPC across the lawn to the reception in Chambers after the service, smiles and laughter had the upper hand. A bulletin board in the Lilly Family Gallery quickly filled with Robert pictures, stories, and mementos, and our shared laughter leavened shared grief.

Later that afternoon, I ran into Alex Kowaleski ’11, a history major who took some math classes with Robert in preparation for his current study of meteorology. “I took differential equations with him, and that was fun,” Alex told me. “The world needs more people like him. People who can make math fun, and who are kind and caring souls.”

Another who has just the right words in appreciation of Robert’s life is Donna Molinek, chair of the math department, who read this tribute at the faculty meeting last week.

And for the many far-flung friends from Robert’s 67 years with us who could not be present Saturday, click for a video of the memorial service.

We celebrate Robert Clark Whitton’s life, even as we grieve his death.

Live. Laugh. Love.

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