Renaissance Man – a person with many talents or areas of knowledge.
April 7 was my mom’s 90th birthday. It was also the day that I found out that my dear, close friend, Sel Whitaker, died. Thinking about Sel’s life has prompted me to write about his extraordinary career and the deep bond of friendship we shared.
When I began my blog, I entitled it (extra)Ordinary Leaders – Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Sel Whitaker was an ordinary guy from suburban Philadelphia who did extraordinary things in his life.
He excelled as an athlete, playing offensive and defensive tackle at Conestoga High School, and was recruited by major colleges. One of my favorite stories he told me was being recruited to play football at the U.S. Naval Academy. He told about getting the royal treatment, touring the facilities, and having a physical where he shared that he was color blind. Sel took away two important lessons: 1) it’s probably a good idea to know your greens from your reds if you’re going into the Navy (red and green lights are important to distinguish if you’re on the water) and 2) you probably should think about more than football when you go to college (he would have had to pursue an engineering degree at that time and engineering was the farthest thing from his mind).
He ended up pursuing a rigorous academic career at Williams College, where he formed friendships with people who would rise to leadership positions in many fields. Sel used to tell me that, while they weren’t very good at football, their cheer was “That’s all right; that’s Okay; you’re gonna work for us some day.”
(extra)Ordinary Educator and Leader
He married his high school sweetheart, Sue, and they embarked on a lifetime voyage of discovery, filled with joy and heartbreaks. He started his career as a history teach in Great Valley School District, but soon learned that, if you were going to “make it” you had to go into some form of school administration. Sel earned his master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, continuing to demonstrate his incredible intellect. They moved to Massachusetts, where Sel earned his doctorate from Northeastern University and served as Superintendent of the Duxbury School District.
Sel and Sue moved to State College, PA where he became Superintendent of the State College Area School District, where he served for ten years. During that time, they lost their daughter, Laura, who was attending Penn State. It was a dark time in their lives and we often talked about their devastation and heartbreak. Through their participation in “The Compassionate Friends Program,” they began to heal their grief and began helping other parents who walked through similar experiences.
An (extra)Ordinary Friendship
Sel and Geoff presenting to the Wisconsin Association of School Board, 1995
Sel was a teacher, leader, and innovator. I first met him in 1991 when I was working for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and we began putting together a case study of a fictional school district to be used in school board training. We “hit it off” and became close friends almost immediately. In fact, when we would do joint presentations, we would introduce each other as our “lifelong friend of a few years.” We shared the same passions, dreams, and values. We even joked about the fact that we owned the same sweaters from L.L. Bean – and hoped we wouldn’t show up dressed as twins.
Sel was fascinated by the Amish and, since I was from Lancaster County, gave me the name, “Jakey Stoltzfus.” He also gave himself a name in an email signature that he used only in emails to me:
Irishtown Road, RD #2
Ronks, PA 17572
E-mail: But, of course!
Sel was a visionary whose purpose was firmly centered on making schools a better place to work and learn. In support of that, he was part of a group of educators introduced to “Total Quality Management” and “Continuous Quality Improvement” at a workshop held at DuPont. He quickly saw how the principles developed by W. Edwards Deming could be applied to schools and became an evangelist of this philosophy.
In fact, Sel told me about attending a talk given by Dr. Deming when Dr. Deming was in his 90s. Sel told me that he was a brilliant man but not a very good speaker. When the talk was over, Sel approached Dr. Deming to let him know how much he appreciated his work. Dr. Deming asked Sel what he did for a living and Sel told him he was a school superintendent.
Dr. Deming peered down at Sel over his glasses and said, “Young man, change the schools.”
Sel replied, “But Dr. Deming, it’s not that easy.”
Dr. Deming repeated – even more emphatically, “Young man, change the schools.”
That interchange fueled Sel’s already passionate vision of making schools a better place.
In 1992 Sel approached Dr. Bill Hartman at Penn State and, together, they founded “The Center for Total Quality Schools,” It was the application of those business principles of CQI and TQM in which he saw promise for schools, but he knew that, as Dr. Deming said, “Quality starts at the top.” I was working with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and we put together a presentation that was aimed at introducing school boards and administrators to the basic principles and tools of CQI and TQM and took it all over the country. We spoke in California, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, and several other locations. We even began working with individual school districts and developed a 12-month process whereby schools could learn and apply the principles.
On one particularly memorable trip to San Francisco to present at the National School Boards Association’s annual conference, Sel demonstrated his understanding of TQM. We were checking into the Marriott at the San Francisco Convention Center and received our room keys. We went up to our different rooms and, almost immediately, I got a call from Sel.
“Meet me in the lobby immediately!”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Just meet me in the lobby.” (Sel could be very persuasive when he became focused on something.)
We met at the lobby and, without a word of explanation, Sel approached the front desk and began vehemently complaining about the fact that his room hadn’t been made up yet and the dirty linens and towels were still in the room.
Sel asked, “And what do you plan to do about that?”
The front desk clerk responded, “What would you like us to do to make this right, sir?”
Sel replied, “How about a free breakfast while I wait?”
“Certainly, sir,” the clerk responded.
Then, with a glimmer in his eye, Sel added, “And one for my friend, too.”
At breakfast, Sel explained to me that Marriott employees were empowered to spend up to $2,000 to make every customer’s experience a “delight.” He knew that and wanted to see if it was true. It was.
One of Sel’s favorite places to facilitate was at Harrisburg Area Community College’s conference center. Why? Because it was named the “C. Ted Lick Wildwood Conference Center.” Sel thought that was the funniest name he had ever heard of for a conference center and used to take the extra napkins and plastic cups home with him after an event (and used to ask me to do the same thing). Whenever Sel and Sue would have guests in for drinks or dinner, Sel would proudly give out the napkins and plastic cups and laugh hysterically (as Sue rolled her eyes).
Sel also created an opportunity to impact the broader world by inviting Brazilian educators to State College, creating a multi-week Brazilian Study Council, which hosted dozens of educators from Brazil each year at what is now known as the Penn Stater. Each summer, these educators would arrive for a five-week experience that Sel would plan and coordinate, that included on-campus educational sessions, trips to schools, and cultural trips to experience American culture firsthand.
The educational sessions were around leading-edge topics that could be applied to education, such as TQM, strategic planning, and innovative approaches to school finance to name a few. Sel would bring in various speakers for the topics and translators who could translate English to Portuguese in real-time.
I helped with the TQM material and did the strategic planning part of the program. It was an experience to be speaking in English and having people sit with headphones on, hearing what I was saying in their native language. It was my “United Nations” moment.
While I don’t know all the details, Sel was honored by the Brazilian government and traveled to Brazil a few times where he was feted by those he had so graciously shared his passions.
An (extra)Ordinary Last Chapter
Sue’s surprise birthday gift on Sel’s 70th birthday.
Sue was diagnosed with M.S. and this changed how they lived, with many trips to the University of Pennsylvania hospital for treatments. A fiercely independent, smart, engaging woman with a dry sense of humor and a wide interest in many subjects, Sue spent her career in State College as a diabetes educator at the local hospital. A Renaissance Woman for a Renaissance Man.
I remember getting a call from Sel in 1995, announcing that he was retiring and going “cold turkey” – that he would no longer be teaching at Penn State or running the PA School Study Council. I couldn’t believe it! He was only 65 – ten years older than me – and still seemed to be at the top of his game. I remember several attempts to lure him into another consultation or opportunity for something new, but he was adamant. I’m pretty sure he realized how much time he had dedicated to his career and now wanted to dedicate all his time to Sue and his family.
Sel knew that the time he and Sue had left had to be focused on each other and their daughter, Kathy, and granddaughter, Susan. They moved to Pittsburgh to be closer to Kathy and Susan and told us stories of the “scavenger hunts” they planned for Susan when she would visit and the joys of being active grandparents.
Sel and granddaugher, Susan.
They also made several trips internationally, taking cruises in Europe and exploring parts of the U.S. One trip was memorable – but for the wrong reasons. Sue developed an illness on board ship and when the doctor found out about her condition, the ship dropped them off at the first port they reached. Sel told me about the helpless feeling that he had as they watched the ship leave, and them standing on the dock with their luggage, having to figure out how they were going to get home.
Every year, Sally and I would plan a trip with Sel and Sue and we always had great conversation and enjoyed each other’s company.
In 2012 Sue finally succumbed to the horrible disease that had been torturing her for years. Sally and I went to her funeral at their church, East Liberty Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, and listened as friend after friend recounted the special person Sue was. I was surprised to find Sel in an accepting frame of mind and we talked briefly at the reception, promising to get together soon.
Not long after that, Sel spent a week at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA to process his grief. He had gone there after losing his daughter and shared that the staff helped him through the sadness he experienced. He thought it would be a good idea to do the same with the loss of his lifelong partner. After his week, he came and spent two days with us, and we had some of the best conversations we ever had.
When we said our goodbyes, we promised to continue to stay in touch. We scheduled several “halfway between Pittsburgh and East Petersburg” lunches in State College or somewhere along the PA Turnpike, but each time, at the last minute, Sel would cancel and share that he wasn’t feeling sharp enough to drive the 2 hours.
My last email from Sel was in December of 2014
Hi Geoff [AKA Jakey]- It feels so good to be back in touch and thanks especially for your Christmas card and handwritten reply to my previous letter. I agree that we need to find ways to spend some time together. Back in the early days of our friendship we spent a lot of time together working on our numerous projects all over the USA! Then, as we each moved in new directions it became more difficult to carve out some quality free time. Let’s see what we can come up with in the New Year. It was also good to hear about Eugene Washington’s positive recollections about his experience at PSU. And the quintet’s musical greeting was super. Have you had your annual Christmas concert yet? My best wishes to you, Sally and your wonderful family for a Merry Christmas. Always your friend. Sel [AKA Ezra] 🙂
What Sally and I didn’t know was that Sel had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was slipping away from us. Maybe it was caused by his football playing days. Maybe it was just that he got the disease. While we knew something was different, when Kathy told us that he had moved from his townhouse to a retirement community, we began to better understand.
We continued our long-time tradition of sending him a poinsettia at Christmas every year and Kathy would send us a picture of it sitting in his living room. It was a reminder of all that we had been through together and signified the bond between our families.
I miss my friend and the big smile and great laugh he shared. I miss the emails from Ezra Stumpf. I miss our travels together. I miss watching his reaction to another set of napkins from HACC being delivered to his home. I miss learning from Sel and exploring new ideas and possibilities. I’ll miss sending a poinsettia this Christmas. But I do have great memories and hope that sharing them with you will somehow keep his memory and the work he stood for alive. And I know that, as a man of faith, he was confident in where he’d be part of the next chapter of life.
My life would not have been as rich, my journey not as interesting or varied, and the pattern and fabric of my work so much different had I not met Dr. Seldon V. Whitaker, Jr. Thanks for your friendship.
Always your friend,
© Geoff Davis, 4/17/20