Thursday, June 16, 2016

Remembering John Whitaker

John Whitaker, as I first met him, on the other end of the phone.  He was the Tour Director on the 1968 Nixon Presidential Campaign.

Cheers is gone.  We will miss him.  A great American, patriot, father, grandfather, and friend has died at 89.

John Whitaker, whom we all called CHEERS, back in the day, was the voice on the other end of the telephone when Ron first got involved in the campaign of 1968, when Richard Nixon was running for his second try for the presidency of the United States of America. John was involved in the 1960 campaign as well, but we didn't know him then.  Cheers always signed every thing he wrote, with the word, "cheers."  And it stuck.

Years before, he had read a book about Richard Nixon while sitting on a beach.  He was completely caught up in his personality and accomplishments.  He told his wife, Betty, "I have to go to work for this man.  He needs to be President of the United States." Betty was not thrilled with the idea, and she never was as devoted to the president as her husband was.

Election night in November of 1968, at the Waldorf-Astoria, was the first time I got to finally meet the people that Ron had been working closely with for many months.  I knew most of them by their telephone voice and was very excited to finally meet them in person. It was a very long night. The election was too close to call.  We didn't know who had been elected until the next morning.

 Soon after we arrived at the Waldorf, I found myself sitting next to Betty Whitaker, Cheer's wife.  I introduced myself and she said, "Ten G. D. years for this."

I didn't know how to respond.  Perhaps I didn't, because I don't remember saying anything. I was pretty intimidated.  But, now in hindsight it is easy to understand her reaction.  She was raising their five sons by herself and dealing with a husband who was never home.  Presidential campaigns are very hard on those who are left behind.  I'd already had a small  taste of it, but it was still too new and exciting and Ron was really good at keeping me in the loop.  And, I hadn't been dealing with it for a decade like Betty.

We spent a lot of time with John and Betty over the next several years.  We didn't live very far apart in the Maryland suburbs.  Us moms would often come face to face in the Giant grocery store on Seven Locks Road.  We'd gab in the aisles and get caught up.  Betty looked and dressed like an Easterner. She was always sharp and well informed.  Cheers was Eastern too, but in a more rumpled, relaxed sort of way.  Flash forward many years to the Nixon reunion group photos where John, in the front row, wearing white socks, couldn't be missed.

During the horrendously stressful days of Watergate, Cheers had a heart attack.  We were all scared to death.  But our prayers were answered.  He survived and outlived Betty by fifteen years.

Dr. Whitaker and Ron worked together at the Department of Interior, Ron was Director of the National Park Service and John was Under Secretary.  They had a great deal in common and were good pals.  Always a true Nixon loyalist, John helped find the money and the means for the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace to become a reality.  Ken Khachigian said of John's help with the RN Library, "His perseverance, devotion and sheer doggedness were critical to creating the momentum that resulted in the successful opening in 1990.  All of it with the good humor and laughter that was the sunshine he brought to our lives."  Well said, Ken.

Ron and I serve on the Clemson University Institute for Parks board, and Ron, as Chairman, asked John to serve on the board with us.  It was great to be able to spend time with him, both in Washington and on the Clemson campus.  It was clear he was not hearing as well anymore, and I would sit next to him and he would ask me what had been said, or proposed, or who was talking?  We both had fun doing that.  Frequently, John would whisper that "Ron runs one helluva good meeting." Ron's proud of that accomplishment and says he learned from the best. Well, I guess so! His teacher was Chief Justice Warren Burger when they both served on the Bicentennial of the Constitution. Our friend, Lynne Cheney was a Commission member as well.

We cherish the good times spent with the Whitaker's. Numerous Washington social events where we were always thrilled to discover they were there too!  A trip to Disneyland, weekends at Camp Hoover, and many a long evening sharing cocktails and talking politics. Politics permeated our worlds.  I called him Cheers, he called me Dearie. I will miss him.