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Honoring the past

DeWitt “Dee” Whittington

As a child, DeWitt “Dee” Whittington was treated for polio at Crippled Children’s Hospital, now Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. Sixty years later, he remembers his experience clearly and decided to honor the care he received by planning a $200,000 gift to Children’s Hospital Foundation in his will.

Mr. Whittington has called Central Virginia his home for nearly all his life, but his story began thousands of miles away in Salta, Argentina. His father, John Roy, worked for the British American Tobacco Company for 20 years, and he and his wife, Louise, lived in Argentina when Dee, the first of their three boys, was born on January 15, 1942.

Mr. Whittington had spinal curvature, a twisted scapula, and partial paralysis in his right shoulder and arm, a collection of symptoms that doctors in Argentina believed was the result of a birth injury. “As I grew, the nerves in my right shoulder were damaged, and it allowed the shoulder blade to rotate outward,” Mr. Whittington explained.

After his family moved back to Virginia when Mr. Whittington was almost five years old, his parents discovered Crippled Children’s Hospital. There, the doctors reassessed his condition and diagnosed him with polio. He attended Sunday clinics at the hospital every six months for x-rays and physical examinations throughout his childhood. When the spinal curvature accelerated during his adolescence, doctors scheduled a spinal fusion surgery for his top 10 vertebrae.

Growing up on the family farm, DeWitt Whittington (far right) and his younger brothers, Rankin (left) and Juan (center), helped care for baby beef steers and took them to a special auction.

Moving In

Following the surgery, Mr. Whittington was in a full body cast for over six months, and his hospital stay was interrupted only by a trip to his family’s farm in Amelia County for Christmas. The hospital made a lasting impression on him over those difficult months.

“I remember we had a Boy Scout troop on the boys’ ward,” Mr. Whittington said. “I also got interested in tying flies in occupational therapy, and I became friends with several of the other boys. One in particular was my age and had a similar spinal fusion.”

His father and mother came to the hospital every Sunday to visit him, and they brought fresh produce and chickens from the family’s farm for the hospital to use. “Families did not pay the hospital anything in those days, so that was his way of giving something in exchange,” he continued.

Moving On

With his surgery behind him, Mr. Whittington got back to normal life. He graduated as valedictorian from Amelia High School in 1960, where he played the clarinet and saxophone in the school band. During those years, he won high school forensics prose reading contests and competed in the Virginia State 4-H Public Speaking Contest. Continuing in 4-H he won fourth place in the 4-H National Public Speaking Records Contest as well as first in the Virginia State 4-H Electric Demonstration Contest. He obtained his undergraduate degree in general engineering from Haverford College in 1965. Between his junior and senior years, he took turns with his brothers and operated the family farm after his father died in 1962. He went on to earn a master’s degree in technical journalism and mass communication at Iowa State University.

He cites his mother as the main influence that led him away from making a living running the family farm. She had three college degrees—in French, English, and library science.

After college, Mr. Whittington served as a technical writer for Lockheed Martin in Georgia, Consumer Reports in New York, and Reynolds Metals Company in Virginia. In 1973, he headed in a new direction and opened a bicycle shop with his wife, Kathy, which they ran for 26 years on Forest Hill Avenue and in Carytown in Richmond.

An avid photographer and “serious home cook” who particularly enjoys Indian and Asian cuisines, Mr. Whittington’s longest-held passion is aviation. He is a member of the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, is an instrument flight instructor, and enjoys flying with his partner in their Cessna 172. He is also constructing a homebuilt kit airplane, a Glasair Sportsman 2+2, with three partners.

Although he was young when his family left Salta, Argentina, Mr. Whittington has returned to Salta five times in recent years where he discovered the house his father had built is still in use as a bed and breakfast for Alliance One Tobacco. Reflecting on his childhood and realizing how lucky he had been to find such care at Children’s Hospital, he became inspired to include Children’s Hospital Foundation in his will.

“I owe a lot to the hospital for the fact that it was there to look after me,” he said simply.