The time has come to say farewell to Curlie L. Whiten Sr., who died last week at 94. Whiten embodied the perfect recipe for making the world a better place: He knew who he was, and he did what he could where he could. No hesitation. No expectation of return.
Whiten would have been born about 1923, so he was a small child when the 1927 Flood devastated the Delta and most of the western half of Mississippi. He would have been in grade school during the Great Depression when few families in the nation had much and families in this state, especially black families like his, had less.
He would have been a young man during World War II, but never mentioned his role in the Army with the 327th Quartermaster Service Regiment. For the ensuing three decades he continued in federal service, working for the Corps of Engineers up and down the Mississippi. Teams dredged to keep the river navigable, and placed concrete revetments to fight relentless sloughing of the banks.
Hard work. Dangerous work. Around the clock.
But you’d never know anything about that simply by meeting Whiten. He didn’t talk much at all, and when he did it was never about himself, never about the past, never about the future. He lived in the moment, and valued every moment.
Whiten walked everywhere.
There were a couple of stories about why, but none were ever verified. He wasn’t a luddite, fearful of vehicles or anything. He seemed to like walking, even prefer it.
One day he visited Daniel Wilson, a fellow veteran of the corps, who had obtained post-retirement custodial work at the newspaper office in Vicksburg. It was just to help Wilson that day. As it turned out, Wilson worked until he died and Whiten was there for 34 years, retiring for a second time in 2015 at a spritely 92.
Whiten and his family owned a home at the foot of Fort Hill Drive, two miles or so from the newspaper office. It wasn’t a bad walk. Hilly, but not bad.
In 1996, when Whiten was 73, The Vicksburg Post moved another four or five miles from his home. The assumption was he would finally retire and go fishing more often with his wife. Fishing was her passion.
But the first person to drive up for the first day of work in the new building spotted Whiten on the steps. He didn’t have a key yet, but did by the end of the day.
Whiten was a person not easily fooled. Smart but not overbearing. Wise but not officious. Met every person as an equal. He walked smoothly, but with purpose. Posture impeccable. Didn’t miss a detail.
“Those 34s?” he said to me one morning, guessing the waist of what he immediately spotted as a new pair of khakis. “Yes,” I said.
“What are you going to do with all those 32s?” he asked. I said I was holding onto them for when I lost the extra inches.
“You’ll never go back,” he said and laughed.
And he was right (so far).
Whiten gathered scraps to feed feral cats that lived in the woods behind the building. He was an example to young employees in all departments, but he never told anyone what to do. He didn’t fuss at those who complained about their work or were habitually late. He simply showed a better path.
His good deeds were uncounted. Staff at nursing homes told me he’d show up in a cab with a couple of milkshakes. He knew some of the residents. He didn’t know many others. If any appeared lonely, he’d sit with them, spoon-feeding those unable to feed themselves.
Nobody asked him to do it. Nobody rewarded him for doing it.
No conversation with Whiten was very long or, for that matter, very deep (perhaps deeper than we realized at the time). He read the newspaper, and had political views that he would share — usually in three or four words — if asked.
Here’s what’s key: No exchange with him ever ended without both you smiling and him smiling. His life was as hard and perhaps harder than others. But if he could focus instead on helping others, then perhaps we could, too.
The world is full of great people orchestrating great ideas for the betterment of humanity. They make headlines for their deeds and dedication.
Today, though, pause to remember one who chose a modest path, and was a blessing in the lives of so many.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.