Michael “Lt. Mikey” Robert Whitman
Michael “Lt. Mikey” Robert Whitman.
It would be beyond easy to take the measure of Mikey’s life through his career alone: four years serving in the Navy during the time of the Vietnam war as a Cryptological Technician, or the twenty-nine years he spent as a firefighter in Hampton, VA, eventually retiring as a lieutenant. That would be enough to declare the man a hero, a vibrant brushstroke on the canvas of national treasures that have dedicated their lives in the service to others. Shadowboxes could stand in stoic dignity as a testimony to the multiple times Mike was willing to sacrifice his life for his fellow man. There are many who would be lucky to reach the end of their brief time on this planet and leave behind such a legacy.
And yet, to sit like a fly on the wall in a house filled with echoing laughter spanning across four generations, one gets the sense that the term hero doesn’t come close to capturing the essence of the man. It comes woefully short.
Born in Buffalo, New York on the fourteenth of June in 1948 to Bob and Billie Whitman, sepia-toned photographs capture the round, bespectacled, smiles of his youth, brimming with mischief and humor and a zeal for life that would remain unchanged over the course of his seventy-one years. Mike would always keep close ties to his past, and the past that came before him. He liked to keep ancient photographs and time-worn mementos tucked away in dusty, quiet corners, little treasures he cultivated into well-loved stories he liked to share with those around him.
Following his time in the Navy, Mike enrolled in Penn State where he would eventually earn his Bachelors in Fine Arts, but not before meeting the love of his life, then Carol Bennett, in their freshmen year. During the winter break of their senior year, Carol Bennett became Carol Whitman and would remain so for the following forty-nine years, a marital longevity that is almost unimaginable today. After nearly five decades of ups and downs, three children, nine grandchildren and even a great grandchild, the couple never fought, their devotion to each other never wavered. For a man whose life was lit most brilliantly by his many passions, the family that he and Carol built served as the brightest light of all.
To know Mike is to truly understand that there is no limit to the capacity of love in any one person. Together, he and Carol gave the world three beautiful, amazing daughters–Melissa, Megan, and Marcy, and in Mike they had a father better than three girls could hope to have at that time in America. He never missed a game. He never judged. He loved them without condition, and more importantly, without judgement. More than perhaps even they will ever know, they were his greatest joy. Mike didn’t just celebrate their achievements and awards, he celebrated their small everyday victories, and even their setbacks. He did something with grace that even fathers today still struggle with; he let them be human. He didn’t just cheer on their victories, but he supported them at their defeats, nourished their shortcomings, and refused to let them feel diminished when life threw them a curveball.
Mike’s capacity for family did not stop at his wife, nor his daughters, or even grandchildren. After retiring as a firefighter in 2005, Mike would work as a security guard for Busch Gardens and Water Country where he took in coworkers under his wing as friends and family, regaling them with stories of his past or urging them into a new pursuit, or sometimes just helping them get through the day. Maybe that was one of the greatest gifts Mike had to give to the world, he never said no. He never refused a kindness, and to know Mike was to not be an acquaintance, or even a friend, but to be family. Mike took in the lost, the downtrodden, and the friendless, and with a kind word, you were simply a part of something. It was a special magic that he had, to give the idea of family as easily as someone else might give a dollar. It didn’t matter if you knew Mike for three decades, or three days, you were just accepted into his tribe, no questions asked.
For those lucky enough to be in Mike’s tribe (and it wasn’t a difficult admission at all) the rewards were illimitable. To his family, Mike passed on a love for nature, herpetology specifically, but the natural world as a whole. This love lives on in his wife, children, and grandchildren, a family that has a love for nature and camping and conservation that might not exist without him. He also passed on a love of American history, trekking along the Yorktown battlefields standing among his chief joys, even in the twilight years of his life. Mike’s love of art continues to live on, not just in the beautiful canvases he painted, but in the talents of his grandchildren. Mike adored history and art and music and puzzles and movies, and Disney, and these passions and more he used to help build connections with those around him.
It is important to remember always that despite a life given to military and firefighting service, Mike’s soul was forged in the psychedelic, free-love, age of the sixties. Part of the engine that fueled the unending supply of love that Mike had to give to the world was an appreciation for that world that was unmatched. Mike loved so completely in no small part because he saw the world around him, and the people that filled it, as a menagerie of awe-inducing treasures. Every weekend in his house was a celebration, one of life, and those around us that enrich that life. The frequency of such revelries might become mundane until you sat down next to Mike, and watched as those sly eyes of his surveyed this tribe he helped create and inevitably he would say, “I love this family.”
That is the legacy he leaves. It will be difficult to miss Mike knowing that he lives on in so many facets of our lives, large and small. He will continue to live in every hug that smells of faint cigarette smoke and sunblock, at every beer-fueled game of cornhole, at every raucous birthday party and in every soul-searching conversation that lasts until two in the morning. Everyone who knew Mike knew of his “smiles for the day.” These were shutterbug moments of the joys that surrounded him in the faces of his kids, grandkids, or anyone else in his life lucky enough to be counted among his family, blood, extended, or otherwise. This above anything else remains as the greatest and most cherished of his legacies, an ever-growing family celebrating life and the world around us, sharing our joy and smiles for this day, and the next, and the one after that.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Child of the kindly West, I have come to know, if more of us valued your ways – food and cheer above hoarded gold – it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell.” No words could suit Mike Whitman better. A kind man, a loving man, who valued food and drink and family above all other things. We cherish that memory, take it in our hearts, and share it so that this kindly child of the west lives on.
In no way would Mike have wanted a funeral. Instead the family will throw a celebration of love filled with food and drinks and children and laughter and sun and water. The ongoing pandemic makes it difficult to know exactly when this will happen, but the moment it is safe, we will all gather to celebrate Mike’s wonderful life in the way he would have wanted.