In his landmark work "The Greatest Generation", Tom Brokaw stated, "It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced." He argued that these men and women fought not for fame or recognition, but because "it was the right thing to do". Charles Edgar Whitten, Jr. could easily have been a featured character in Mr. Brokaw's historic book.
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He was born August 25, 1923, at his grandparents home, to Samantha Jane and Charles Edgar Whitten in Alton, Missouri. He died peacefully at Cooper County Memorial Hospital on July 31, 2016.
He grew up during the depths of the Great Depression on Bambi Ranch, with loving parents, surrounded by seven sisters who spoiled him and a brother with whom he competed. His family was very close, and they had an exciting life working side by side on a farm close to his beloved Eleven Point River. They worked hard to scratch out a living, but enjoyed a loving environment within the beautiful large white farmhouse which became the center of all family activities. He learned many great lessons on the farm and utilized these throughout his life. One of the greatest lessons occurred when he moved to town, after attending Whitten School, to live with his grandmother and grandfather Bailey and attend Alton High School. There, he realized very quickly that boys from the country had to prove to the boys from town that they were worth their "salt." He used this as a driving force throughout his life.
After an outstanding high school athletic career where he participated in basketball and baseball, he graduated in 1941 as Valedictorian of his class. Realizing that the looming conflict in Europe would lead to being drafted for military service, he immediately left home, moved to St. Louis, and worked in Missouri Pacific Railroads busy train station. He worked nights, and on occasion took time to go to Sportsman's Park by day, and watch his beloved St. Louis Cardinals, whom he had grown up listening to on the radio, sitting by a wood stove with his father. He dutifully sent the majority of the money he earned back to his parents as he waited to enlist for his tour of duty which occurred in February 1942.
Characteristic of the greatest generation's members, he served his country as a Medic in Patton's Fifth Army as a member of the 110th Medical Battalion. He received five bronze stars and ribbons for five campaigns during the European conflict, including Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Central Europe, and the Rhineland. HBO's famous series "Band of Brothers" clearly elucidates the experiences he had during this major world conflict. Following this journey in Europe, unsure of his fate and whether or not it would involve a trip to the Pacific theatre, he returned home on the Queen Mary. On board the ship, he realized quickly that with card playing skills he could earn serious money, and he accumulated over $1,000 on the journey back across the Atlantic. When the world conflict ended, he used this money to pay for his college degree and launch his career.
When he returned home to the town square in Alton, following his discharge from the military, the same men who had been sitting on the square when he left, were still there whittling, chewing tobacco, and otherwise gossiping. It left an indelible impression on him to the effect that life at home with family was more important than activities in the outside world. This became one of the driving principles as he charted a course for his life. He also took his incredible battlefield experiences to teach all with whom he came in contact what he had learned to be good in the world, recognizing what hate and prejudice can bring to a society. Upon returning home, he spent a few months before enrolling in the winter semester at Southwest Missouri State, in December 1945, painting his family's big white farmhouse. He felt that this time alone, reflecting at home with his family, helped cleanse his soul from what he had experienced during the war, and provided him the perspective to pursue an extraordinary life. He enrolled in college at the encouragement of his sister, Frances, a true angel in his life, and supported himself by delivering the Springfield Daily News twice a day, at 4 AM and 4 PM.
He met the love of his life, Dorothy Harpham, in June 1946, at Dowling Park in Springfield, Missouri. They had a romance that continued across two states. Charles was convinced that Dorothy's father, Elmer, utilized every connection he had in the school business to break them up by sending her to Belmond, Iowa following her graduation a year prior to Charles'. Not to be influenced by Elmer or any outside forces, Charles drove to Belmond in February 1948, to celebrate Valentine's Day with Dorothy. Sixty-eight years ago, on July 24, 1948, they were married in Springfield, Missouri and honeymooned in Branson, Missouri, when Branson was a one post office, and one stop sign town. Soon they moved to New Franklin, Missouri where they spent the first portion of their married life. He spent his first year coaching and teaching three classes of Biology in Fayette, while Dorothy was able to procure a job within the New Franklin school system. When given the opportunity in 1949 to coach basketball in the fabulous new gymnasium at New Franklin, Charles jumped at the opportunity to join Dorothy, and had a great run there until 1963.
He fell in love with basketball as a nine year old boy, shooting at a rim with no backboard and no net with a ball that was neither easily inflatable nor round. He carried this love of the game into his career as coach. These years coaching were some of his most rewarding, yet challenging in his professional career. Due to his concerns that coaching would distract him from Dorothy and his family, he walked away from the coaching ranks in the spring of 1954, though he stayed close to the game by refereeing literally thousands of games across the state of Missouri. One of his greatest legacies was that anybody that played basketball at the grade school, junior high, high school, or junior college level, in central Missouri during his forty years of refereeing, likely participated in a game which he officiated. His professional career included functioning as a principal and guidance counselor, as well as a teacher. He became an instructor for Central Missouri State University for the first weekend college program in 1973. He utilized the skills he had developed as an extraordinary coach to propel multiple students, friends, and mentees on their journey in life. He returned to coaching for one last stint in the 1981-1982 season, coaching a group of 7th and 8th grade boys. The 7th grade team went undefeated, and the 8th grade team lost two games. What a fitting way for Charles to end his extraordinary coaching career.
He retired in 1992, but flunked retirement in the summer of 1993. He was convinced to go back into teaching in August of that year, with only two weeks' notice. On the 9th hole of the Kemper Golf Course, Tim Lenz, then the Principal at Bunceton and one of his favorite golf partners, encouraged him to return as a part time counselor, which he did from 1993-1996.This helped him wind down and slowly deal with the loss of interacting with his parents and students, an experience he treasured.
Charles' life could be entitled: "Watching things grow." This simple pleasure was stimulated by growing up on a poor dirt farm in Southern Missouri, during the Great Depression when it was hard to get things to grow in any aspect of one's life, particularly, on the farm. He loved watching his students grow during his education career from 1948 to 1992, and 1993 to 1996, at Fayette, New Franklin, Boonville and Bunceton. This tenure included time as coach of baseball, basketball, track, as well as runs as principal and high school guidance counselor and teacher. He enjoyed watching his players grow from 1948-1954, and then again in 1981-1982. He appreciated watching other coach's teams grow in his career as a basketball official which spanned 1954 until 1992. He also took great pleasure watching things on his farm grow from 1963-1972, including raising cattle and horses. After selling the farm, he took satisfaction watching his garden grow, full of corn, tomatoes, and most recently, roses. He always had guilt about the roses he borrowed along the way, when he was courting Dorothy, and wanted to make sure that he repaid this debt by giving roses as gifts of appreciation to others who he treasured and admired. Most importantly, he enjoyed watching his family grow his entire life.
As can be surmised from this description of his life, he was a figure who could walk out of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" book or any number of scenes from Norman Rockwell paintings which described Americana during the 20th Century. His life was defined by servant leadership to his family and community in Alton; to the Army and his country; to the learning communities he was a part of as a student at Alton High School, Southwest Missouri State and the University of Missouri; and in his career in education, which spanned 48 years in Central Missouri. His life was defined by selfless sacrifice on behalf of his country, his community, and his family. He always felt he was entitled to nothing and gave freely to all who so richly provided to him.
Charles was preceded in death by his father Charles Edgar and mother Samantha Jane Whitten; and his sisters Frances, Nancy, Hazel, June, Emma Lou, and Georgia, as well as his brother Joe. He is survived by his sister Carolyn Johnson of Alton, Missouri, his wife Dorothy of Boonville, Missouri, his daughter Jennifer Lynn Metzger and her husband Steve, their children Nicole Brewer and Natalie Lesikar, Nicole's children Charles Morgan Brewer and Natalie Anne Brewer, and Natalie's husband John. He is also survived by his son Charles Wesley Whitten MD and his wife Cheri Blake Whitten, all of Dallas, Texas.
Charles was guided by his spiritual life and was an active member of the Nelson Memorial United Methodist Church. He was also on the Board of Cooper-Howard County Port Authority and was a 58 year member of Howard Masonic lodge #4 and a past master. Charles loved to talk to people from all walks of life, play cards, ride horses, work on classic cars, write, tell stories, coach, play golf and watch basketball, particularly, his beloved Missouri Tigers and any team coached by Mike Davis. He has left a tremendous legacy for family, friends and players by writing multiple books about them, and his career. This man of the "Greatest Generation" fought hard for life the last sixteen months while he battled multiple health issues. The family wishes to recognize the extraordinary care provided by Jerry Kennett MD, the staff at Boone County Hospital and Cooper County Memorial Hospital.
Please join us in celebrating an extraordinary life. Visitation will be held:
Friday, August 5, 2016
6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
Davis Funeral Chapel, 1397 W. Ashley Road, Boonville, MO 65233
A memorial service will be held:
August 6, 2016
Nelson Memorial United Methodist Church
407 E. Spring Street, Boonville, MO 65233
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to:
Charles Edgar Whitten, Jr. Scholarship Fund in care of
Alton Public School Foundation – HC 64 P.O. Box 363, Alton, MO 65606 or The Nelson Memorial United Methodist Church of Boonville, 407 East Spring Street, Boonville, Missouri 65233
Davis Funeral Chapel Inc
1397 W Ashley Rd
Boonville, MO 65233
Published in Boonville Daily News from Aug. 3 to Aug. 10, 2016