In Memory of Mr. Sterling Whitener
Sterling Whitener enjoying Sterling Creek Park, Summer 2015
GREENSBORO Sterling Hegnauer Whitener, who was born in China to missionary parents and lived a life of faith, service, and adventure, died at his home at Friends Homes West in Greensboro on Saturday, January 28, 2017. He was 95. As recounted in his 2013 book, In the Shadow of the Pagoda, Dr. Whitener's love of China and his life growing up during the pre-war years helped to form his passionate personality. He thrived at the Kuling American School located on the mountain of Lushan in Central China. After graduating from Catawba College in Salisbury, NC in 1942, and Yale Divinity School in 1945, his strong desire to serve led him and his bride, Barbara Brown Whitener, back to China in 1946. Forced to leave after the Communist take-over, Dr. Whitener and his family moved to Hong Kong, where they served for 15 years, working with the church and government agencies to resettle refugees flooding out of China. On a furlough in 1963-65, he earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was also awarded an honorary doctorate from Catawba College. Returning to the United States permanently in 1967, Dr. Whitener forged a national reputation for developing an accredited social work program at Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC. He also became a gerontology specialist and undertook consulting as a proponent of Continuing Care Retirement Communities. With Barbara and their six children, he embraced a warm family life while enthusiastically gardening, hiking near their vacation cottage in Blowing Rock, NC, and traveling the world, including ten trips back to China. He retired in 1987, and in 1994 he and Barbara were in the very first cohort of residents at the newly built Friends Homes West in Greensboro. Dr. Whitener is survived by his wife, Barbara, and five children Chris, Katrina, Kim, Bonnie, and Dana (daughter Karen 1948-2001), ten grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. Many generous people have donated to the Middle Fork Greenway In Honor of Sterling Whitener, we cannot express our gratitude enough for the Whitener Family and all of those who honor them.
Sterling Whitener at a Middle Fork Greenway Ribbon Cutting
Sterling and Barbara Whitener
Our first conversation with Sterling and Barbara Whitener occurred after we wrote them in Greensboro, in early 2000, about our proposal to create a hiking and bicycling trail along the Middle Fork. We had mailed letters to all the landowners along the river requesting permission to walk, on January 19, 2000, with Dwayne Stutzman, NC Dept. of Parks & Recreation Mountain Region Trails Specialist, on their portion of riverside property to assess its suitability for a trail. We enclosed self-addressed postcards for the landowners to check whether they would or would not allow us to walk on the appointed day. Within three days of receiving the letter Barbara Whitener called and said that not only would she and her husband allow us to walk on their land, but that they were very enthusiastic about the idea of a riverside trail. She returned their signed card, along with a letter saying, “Our mountain property has been good to us and we’d like to share its beauty with others.” Thus began our long, warm friendship with this extraordinary couple.
Over the next months and years, Sterling and Barbara talked and wrote to other landowners about the benefits of greenways, edited drafts of our “vision” documents, making valuable and thoughtful suggestions, attended our meetings when they could, helped prune unruly branches (but not the elderberry bushes!—Sterling would come back and pick the berries to make wine), carry brush, and grade paths on other park sites. In addition to all this they donated and fearlessly raised funds from friends and relatives near and far for the Middle Fork Greenway project. On visits to the Whiteners’ house we were always invited to sit down and have a cup of tea—real Chinese tea—and, if soup was simmering on the stove, a bowl of soup, usually with hot Hunan peppers. As the bird clock on the wall chirped and tweeted away the hours we would watch the wildlife drama unfold beneath the birdfeeder outside the window. “Stumpy”, the fat-cheeked marauding chipmunk that had lost its tail, was Sterling’s beloved antagonist.
In 2003, with the help of a Clean Water Management Trust Fund grant, we had surveys and environmental site assessments done of several tracts whose owners had agreed to grant easements. These included the 3.658-acre Whitener tract on the west side of the Middle Fork. In 2004 Sterling and Barbara and Sterling’s brother Donald and wife Elizabeth Whitener donated the tract to Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust, to ensure that the land would be protected in its natural state forever, with all development prohibited except development of the greenway trail and a small park. Our group had previously decided to name each park we created along the greenway trail after the nearest tributary that flowed into the river, thus recognizing the importance of each waterway’s contribution to the whole. But there was a problem: the stream that bounded down the Whiteners’ mountain into the Middle Fork had never been named. The Whitener children solved that problem by having a family meeting and voting unanimously to name it Sterling Creek, in honor of their exuberant father.
In 2012, Blue Ridge Conservancy transferred the 3.658-acre Whitener tract, and other tracts and easements we had acquired, to Watauga County. In 2012, Tweetsie built its section of the greenway trail, and, thanks to a Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) grant from North Carolina Bicycle/Pedestrian Division of NC DOT, in 2014 the trail was completed through Mystery Hill’s riverside land, through the DOT culvert beneath the highway to and through Sterling Creek Park. In October, 2015 we officially dedicated Sterling Creek Park. Several of Sterling’s and Barbara’s friends, with whom they had served as missionaries in China and in Hong Kong, traveled from as far away as Canada and California for the celebration. Following the Whitener Family ritual of symbolically exchanging turf for twigs, which had accompanied Sterling’s and Barbara’s granting of acreage to each of their children, we held a formal Seizin Ceremony to mark the donation of the 3.658 acres: MFG Director Ann Browning, Blue Ridge Conservancy’s Eric Hiegl, and Watauga County Planning & Inspections Director Joe Furman handed Barbara and Sterling a basket of autumn leaves in exchange for which Barbara and Sterling presented them with a cup of soil from the park, formally sealing the transaction.
As the child of American missionaries in China, Sterling experienced turbulent events most of us only read about. In his 2013 book, In the Shadow of the Pagoda, he gives us the perspective of a not quite 6-year old during the Revolution of 1927 as supplemented by an historical overview: “The era was interrupted by the frequent battles and saber rattling of warlords. I can recall that we constantly heard threats of bandits nearby. Occasionally, we would hear gunfire in the hills outside of town, but in late 1926 and early 1927 things really got serious. The armies of Sun Yatsen’s ‘Nationalist Party’, led by General Chiang Kaishek, were on the march from Canton into Hunan. They were on their way to overthrow the corrupt warlords who had taken over many parts of the country after Yuan Shihkai had failed to maintain the Republic following the revolution of 1911. They also wanted to be sure to reach central China before the Communists, who had organized the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, took over. The Nationalist army was ready to come through our town.” In the spring of 1927 the family--Sterling and by then his 3-year- old brother Don, and their parents, along with other missionary families, left Yochow as refugees evacuating the interior for the big city of Shanghai, where they waited to secure reservations for passage home: “Our destination that spring of 1927 [on the ship the Empress of Asia] was the USA, and we had no idea when we might return.” The family returned to China in 1928. Other evacuations, resulting from political upheavals and natural turbulence, followed. This is only the beginning, a taste of the chronicle of Sterling’s remarkable life and the life of his remarkable wife Barbara. For more, and to understand how events in two worlds shaped these extraordinary people and the impact they’ve had on others, you need to read In the Shadow of the Pagoda.
Over the depth and breadth of their lives working for peace, justice and equality, fostering the natural ability and promise they recognized in others, and holding their friends dear, the Whiteners have created many legacies. Sterling Creek Park is but one.
Sterling Creek Park is a place of solace and joy. Whenever we go there to mow, to rake, or to check the young trees sprouting from the acorns, and the milkweed plants the Whiteners have nurtured in an effort to create an avenue for Monarch butterflies, or whenever we just sit and listen to the birds in the towering oaks and pines, we seldom fail to meet people walking or fishing. We usually end up talking, and when we tell them the land was donated by the family up the hill, they never fail to express astonishment and gratitude. “Imagine that,” they often say, looking around, and then they add, “Please thank them for us.”
To our Lao peng-yu (old/dear friends), Sterling and Barbara Whitener, Thanks, with love and memories.
MFG Task Force