Surrounded by his family, Robert Clark Whitton died peacefully on Friday, Nov. 11, 2011 at Carolinas Medical Center, where he had been a patient since being hit by a car on November 3.
Plans for a celebration of Robert Whitton's life will be announced later.
Born in Charlotte in 1944, Robert Whitton spent most of his life at Davidson College, where his love of mathematics, his commitment to teaching, and his sense of humor influenced several generations of students and colleagues.
After graduating from Myers Park High School in Charlotte, Whitton earned a B.S. degree in mathematics from Davidson in 1966, then received a doctorate in theoretical mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1972.
Whitton returned to Charlotte and was co-founder of several computer technology businesses. He said that he "found his calling" in 1979, when he began teaching at Davidson as a visiting associate professor of mathematics. He taught intermittently at the college for several years, , at first filling in for faculty who were on leave, and then taught steadily-as a visiting associate professor-beginning in 1994. He often said he had "the best job in the world."
Clark Ross, vice president for academic affairs at Davidson, noted that Whitton was a caring person, and his deep sense of compassion came through in his teaching. "He was particularly effective with students who weren't initially comfortable with math," Ross said. "He took a difficult subject and presented it without stress, and yet with challenge. Rather than allowing his students to be discouraged by math, Robert turned the challenge of his subject into a confidence-building experience."
Duke DeLoache '12, a math major from Nashville, echoed that point in a comment to the Charlotte Observer on Nov. 7. "Professor Whitton makes mathematics less mean," he said. "Professor Whitton finds a way through his brilliance to communicate complex ideas to students in a way that gets them excited. He makes it lighthearted and something comprehensible."
Whitton's commitment to his students didn't end in the classroom. He took full advantage of the liberal arts environment at Davidson, and frequently could be spotted in the audience at his students' concerts, sports games and other events.
Just last April, at Spring Convocation, the Student Government Association presented Whitton with its annual Faculty Award, given each year to one professor who has made a difference as a teacher and as a person. The citation noted, "Robert Whitton is a great teacher in and out of the classroom. While in class, he has a sense of humor that keeps students engaged, and his office hours are even better. He meets students at the Alvarez College Union, and welcomes their e-mail. And he always gets back to them before class time! He cares so much about the students and this school."
In the hustle and bustle of an academic community, Whitton's focus was squarely on his students. At one point, in response to a message reminding him to turn his faculty activities report (a summary of faculty activities including publications, committees, and so on), he sent back the reminder with a note saying, "all I did was teach."
In addition to being a favorite Davidson teacher, he was a loyal alumnus. He chaired his class' 35th reunion; and he and his wife, Amy Diamond, were members of the Ne Ultra Society, which recognizes those who make exceptional gifts to Davidson.
Whitton is survived by his wife, Amy Suzanne Diamond, and his five children and four grandsons: Allison Whitton Vierling and her husband, Brian Vierling (of Hickory, N.C.), and their sons Max and Zander; Sarah Whitton and her husband, Josh Gross (of Cincinnati, Ohio) and their sons, Cole Whitton Gross and Aidan Whitton Gross; Katherine Whitton (of Charlotte, N.C.); Michael Whitton (of Carrboro, N.C.); and Amanda Whitton '10 (of Jackson, Wyo.). He is also survived by his sisters, Mary Whitton (of Chapel Hill, N.C.) and Margaret Ray (of Montreat, N.C.), and their families.
Robert Whitton's family and friends set up a Caring Bridge website