Dr. Seldon V. Whitaker, Jr (Renaissance Man) by Dr. Patricia Best

April 7 was the day that I found out that my dear, close friend, Sel Whitaker, died.  I reached out to Sel’s long-time colleague, Dr. Patricia Best.  Patricia is a former superintendent at the State College Area School District and shared these thoughts with me that I thought warranted its own posting.


Sel and Patricia

Sel (left) and Patricia (right)

The picture is Sel; Bob Baker, Ass’t Superintendent; Marcia Kramer, faculty member who later became an assistant principal at the high school; and, me when I was Supervisor of Research and Curriculum.  We were attending an end of year student celebration at Bald Eagle State Park in 1988.  Sel, of course, came dressed to join the festivities; me, not so much!

Here’s “the rest of the story” regarding the Dr. Deming story you told.   I was with Sel when he approached Dr. Deming at the workshop.  Dr. Deming went on to say, “Stop giving grades.”  Sel made a reply and Dr. Deming said,  “Do it on Monday.”  When we went back to our seats, I said to Sel, “Ok, do you want me to draft the memo for you to the Board, administrative team, faculty, parents, and students on Monday? Just say the word…”  He grinned and said, “All in good time, all in good time…”

Sel was an unparalleled mentor and supervisor who became an esteemed colleague and valued friend over the course of 35 years.  That he is nearing the end of life greatly saddens me but reminds me of how much he personifies “the life well lived.

It felt good to focus on that early time and all the difference his mentoring made in my own growth and eventual life path, as well as so many others.  There were so many possibilities…from the “Golden Lug nut Award” presented at our A-team meetings to an administrator who had exhibited grace under pressure (serious and humorous).  Sel attached a lug nut to a wooden square and painted it gold.  Establishing the Faculty Scholars ceremony and the First Grade Tree Planting at the end of each school year on the high school grounds ( photo op for graduating seniors after that first twelve years.  It is still going on.

In our personal and professional lives, we can count ourselves most fortunate when we
not only encounter an extraordinary leader, but also have the opportunity to know and tolearn from that person as a valued, respected, and trusted mentor, coach, colleague,
and friend. As a fledgling central office administrator hired from the ranks of the high
school faculty by a newly appointed Superintendent of Schools in 1984, I was one of
those most fortunate.

Now, a decade into my own retirement and mourning the recent passing of Seldon V. Whitaker, exemplary educator and leader, his lessons still guide and his legacy of leadership is reflected in next generations of school leaders.

In the mid 1980’s in Pennsylvania, there were fewer than five women superintendents
among the 501 school districts. Frankly, that office was not on my radar in my first year
as a novice administrator and only female member of the Superintendent’s cabinet. My
learning curve was steep. As a step in my professional development, Sel asked me to
attend the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrator’s state leadership
conference. When I returned, he wanted to know what I had learned. I told him
candidly, and through the uncertain lens of the novice, that that was the first large
education conference I had ever attended where there was never a line in the ladies‘
room.

Without missing a beat, Sel smiled, leaned forward, and said, “Yes, and, what does that
tell you and what do you think we should do about that?” In that early conversation, he
used my slightly offhand observation to extend my thinking and to open a door to future
possibilities.

From that time on, he communicated his confidence in my growing knowledge and
skills; provided opportunities to gain leadership experiences; constructively assessed
my performance; urged the questioning of assumptions and biases; encouraged me to
risk venturing into new areas; and, introduced me to expanded professional networks of
colleagues.

Sel unselfishly shared his wisdom and insights, counseled the importance of grace under pressure, and expected and reinforced avid intellectual curiosity. To my mentor, my questions were often more important than my answers. Lest this sound overly intense, his healthy sense of humor was frequently in evidence.

Most importantly, Sel, the consummate educator, consistently led by example and
constantly invited me to reflect on what I was learning and to adjust my career goals
and future leadership aspirations accordingly.

And, years later in 2006, when I was serving my second term as Superintendent of
Schools, I called Sel to tell him that I had been elected President of the Pennsylvania
Association of School Administrators. After hearty congratulations, we chuckled and
recalled my first experience at PASA and our subsequent conversation. By then we had
become colleagues and friends, sharing an ongoing commitment to growing the next
generation of leaders, encouraging women to pursue leadership paths and continuing to
view mentoring and coaching as essential practices of effective current leaders.

I was most fortunate to have Sel as an extraordinary mentor and coach, who became a
colleague and lifelong friend. His was a life well-lived and a legacy living still.”

Dr. Patricia Best, 4/15/20

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