Charles Whitehead sold automobiles and dealt in politics, two pursuits that are not dissimilar. Both may tend toward confidence games. Success in either relies upon convincing a person that he is dealing with someone who has his best interests at heart. In some corners, good service after the sale may be as hard to find as a lawmaker's campaign pledge fulfilled.
Mr. Whitehead, however, was governed by truth and an abiding sense of fair play. His was a familiar face among kingmakers and captains of industry, publishers and presidents, but he never outgrew the humility that was a byproduct of growing up in Gulf County, Florida.
He distanced himself from stereotypes and gave both car sales and politics a good name. He was a master retailer and a master retail politician. He was a quiet philanthropist whose contributions were often made with the understanding that there was to be no publicity.
Surrounded by loved ones, Mr. Whitehead, who twice served as chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, died Saturday, Feb. 1. He was 83.
He was born Jan. 19, 1931, in Caryville, Florida, and graduated from Port St. Joe High School, where he was a star running back. He attended the University of Miami in Coral Gables on a football scholarship, but interrupted his education to enlist in the Navy. He was a radar operator in the Korean War
It was fitting that he was a member of the board of trustees at Gulf Coast State College, whose service area includes Bay and Gulf counties. He served on the board from 1976-1990, the last four years as chairman.
For many years, he owned the Cook-Whitehead Ford dealership in Panama City, a business that was established in 1930. He became a 50-50 partner in the dealership in the 1960s and subsequently was its sole owner. He sold the business in 1997.
He became state party chairman in 1980 and held the position until 1988. He returned to the post in 1999. The Democratic Party in Florida was financially strapped and he was seen as the man best equipped to resurrect it. He appealed to President Bill Clinton to come to Florida for a fund-raising dinner. The president agreed and the party's coffers were replenished. He relinquished the chairmanship in 2000, leaving the party, as he did most everything, in far better condition than it was in when he got involved.
Mr. Whitehead was a man who made things better.
His most endearing, enduring and valuable qualities were innate, it seemed, rather than learned: an appetite for hard work, a tolerance for calculated risk-taking, a knack for putting together winning teams, an affable and gregarious nature, the capacity to inspire loyalty and passion. He modeled and championed integrity and exhorted young people, "Whatever you do, do it with integrity and you can't go wrong."
He could wear out a telephone and often preferred to work behind the scenes. The media spotlight was not an attractant; ironically, he never held public office. But he wasn't shy about asking for help and whenever he received a favor, he never forgot it. The notion that kindnesses are returned tenfold, well, Mr. Whitehead proved the rule.
Mr. Whitehead was predeceased by his parents, J.J. and Pally Whitehead and his sister, Elizabeth Ann Birchfield. He is survived by his love and companion of 32 years, Betty Feagle; his nephew, Robert Birchfield, and wife, Kathryn, and their sons, Jonathan and Samuel, of Bakersfield, Ca; and Betty's children, Sonny (Robin) Feagle of Ocala, Sabrena (Screven) Watson of Tallahassee and Starla (Jeff) Sellers of Bonifay. Betty's grandchildren; Connor, Riley, Shelby, Jasper and Audrey.
A celebration of Mr. Whitehead's life will be held Friday, Feb. 7, at 3 p.m. at the Kent Forest Lawn Funeral Home Chapel in Panama City. The family will receive friends from 1:30 p.m. until the time of the celebration. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in Mr. Whitehead's name to Emerald Coast Hospice, 421 Oak Avenue, Panama City, FL 32401; or to the Bay County Alzheimer's Alliance, P.O. Box 16345, Panama City, FL 32406.