A titan remembered: Friends, colleagues reflect on life of Robert Whitney

LEXINGTON — Two communities lost an irreplaceable titan when Robert Whitney died Monday at the age of 88.

Whitney was synonymous with Lexington Local Schools. He spent nearly 60 years on the board of education including more than 40 as board president.

His legal career started two years earlier, in 1962. Whitney spent all that time as an ace defense attorney, taking on some of the most high-profile cases in Richland and surrounding counties.

Robert Whitney

Robert Whitney

Whitney’s ties to the Lexington school district and the legal community ran deep. Starting in 1964, he eventually became the longest-serving school board member in Ohio history.

In honor of Whitney’s legacy, the district has been flying its flags at half-staff.

“I don’t think it will ever be the same without him,” former Lexington Superintendent Mike Ziegelhofer said. “That’s a one-of-a-kind man.”

Whitney was born in Lexington in 1935 and was a lifelong resident, save for college and two years serving in the U.S. Army. Whitney never wanted to be anywhere else.

Some of the people who knew him best shared their memories of the man with the News Journal.

Bernie Davis was a friend and colleague for 52 years

Longtime defense attorney Bernie Davis estimates he knew Whitney better than anybody outside of his family.

Davis graduated from Lexington High School in 1964, Whitney’s first year on the board.

Their paths crossed when Davis finished law school. He interviewed with Inscore, Rinehardt, Whitney & Enderle, the firm Whitney had co-founded.

“When I was in law school at Ohio State, I put in my application to (that firm),” Davis said. “I started practice with them on Nov. 4, 1972.”

That began Davis’ law career, which is still going strong today.

He recalled each lawyer had color-coded files. Davis said one conversation with Whitney in those early days stood out.

“Bob comes up to me with a handful of orange files,” Davis said. “He said, ‘Don’t embarrass me, kid.”’

In those days, Davis estimated their firm handled 75% of criminal cases in Richland County.

“Bob and I did all of that, the two of us, for years,” Davis said. “We handled literally hundreds of cases.”

John Mack Jr., standing, with his defense team, Bernie Davis, Robert Whitney and Jennifer Harmon in a fairly recent trial, one of the last criminal cases handled by Whitney.

John Mack Jr., standing, with his defense team, Bernie Davis, Robert Whitney and Jennifer Harmon in a fairly recent trial, one of the last criminal cases handled by Whitney.

After six years, Davis opened his own practice, but his affiliation with Whitney didn’t end. They were appointed as co-counsel in many high-profile cases because they were two of a handful of county lawyers who were certified to handle murder and death-penalty cases.

“There have been so many that I can’t even recall,” Davis said. “He was an absolute joy to work with. I spent literally thousands of hours with Bob. He was like an older brother to me.”

Davis said the two never had a cross word in more than 50 years of friendship.

He goes so far as to attribute a lot of his success to Whitney.

“One of the things he always told me was you make sure people can hear you,” Davis said. “Take charge of the courtroom. That’s something that I never forgot, and I still use it to this day.”

Taking charge of the courtroom was never an issue for Whitney. He had a booming voice that could be intimidating.

School board members and administrators revered Whitney

Like Davis, Dave Roberts was a Lexington student when Whitney became a school board member. Roberts was a freshman in 1964.

“To get to know him as a person, it wouldn’t be until I came back to Lexington in 1980,” Roberts said.

He taught for the school district for a couple years before becoming an administrator. Roberts retired as assistant superintendent in 2013.

He spoke about his time working for a Whitney-led school board.

“You knew that Bob had experience. For me, we were able to draw on those experiences,” Roberts said. “What was nice about Bob and the other board members is never did I feel like they were looking over our shoulders.

“It was a trust that they hired the right people to do the job. I had nothing but support for all those years, which were 33 in total.”

For the past six years, Roberts worked alongside Whitney as a school board member.

“He loved the school. He would do anything for the school,” Roberts said. “Bob always respected the opinions of board members, mine included.”

Summing up Whitney, Roberts said he was a man who “spewed integrity.”

“He was a role model for anyone that knew him,” Roberts said.

Keith Stoner served with Whitney on the school board for more than 20 years. He has been vice president for much of that time.

“Bob was especially fond of connecting with community members, former classmates and friends who loved Lexington as much as he did,” Stoner said. “He had an encyclopedic memory of our community and our students. He loved watching our students grow and explore their gifts in academics, athletics and the arts.”

Performing arts center in new school named after Whitney

The Robert H. Whitney Performing Arts Center in the new school building is a nod to his support of students.

“To say Mr. Whitney was an important part of our board is the biggest understatement we might make,” Stoner said. “Bob’s passing leaves tremendous shoes to fill, and we will do our best to move forward with the important work of Lexington Local Schools, consistent with his example and desire to always consider what is best for our students and the families of our district.”

Jeremy Secrist has been Lexington’s superintendent for more than three years. He echoed Stoner’s sentiments.

“Mr. Whitney is not only the longest-tenured board member in Ohio history but also the longest-tenured lover of all things Lexington,” Secrist said. “He served without agenda; he loved our staff, students and community, and he took great pride and pleasure in supporting Lexington Local Schools.

“He will be missed by so many, and we must continue to honor him and his legacy by never allowing our support of Lexington Local Schools and its community to waver. Bob was one of a kind, and there will never been another Bob Whitney.”

Ziegelhofer preceded Secrist as Lexington superintendent. In all, he and Whitney worked together for 32 years. Ziegelhofer is one of many people who shared deep ties with Whitney.

He called Whitney a “great influencer and mentor.”

“He was a devoted family man and also a strong leader, but a thoughtful and deliberate leader,” Ziegelhofer said. “I think he’s unparalleled in his love and dedication to the Lexington school district.”

One of Whitney’s mantras was to prepare students for whatever would come after graduation, whether that be college, the military or the workforce.

“There was a quote we talked about,” Ziegelhofer said. “How many chances does a kid deserve? Just one more.

“I’m just very thankful that the good Lord brought him into my life.”

Whitney was on school board for two generations of the Robinson family

Brent Robinson is another Lexington alumnus, and his two adult children are alumni. They all have diplomas signed by Whitney.

Robinson graduated in 1987 and later became first assistant prosecutor for Richland County. Now he is a common pleas judge.

He recalls his days as a lawyer, going up against Whitney in court.

“It was intimidating because he was very much older than I was. He was old enough to be my dad,” Robinson said. “All the jurors either knew him or knew of him. Here I am as a young prosecutor.”

He added Whitney was always prepared.

Like Davis, Terry Hitchman teamed up with Whitney as co-counsel on a number of cases.

“I’ve known him my entire legal career. That’s more than 35 years,” Hitchman said. “He was a person I could go to. He would open up to me and say, ‘What do you need?”’

He said his relationship with Whitney grew from mentorship to friendship.

“I don’t take that lightly,” Hitchman said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with him closely. I’m going to miss him.”

Whitney was married for 67 years and had four children

Whitney married wife Carole in July 1956. They had four children, two of whom, Rolf and Lore, became lawyers, much to Whitney’s delight.

Many people knew the public side of Whitney but may not be aware of the private side. Following high school, he served two years in the Army and later worked in commercial construction while attending then-Ashland College, where he played football.

Davis joined with Whitney in another athletic endeavor when they coached a Little League baseball team together.

“We hated the (meddling) parents,” Davis recalled. “Any kid that showed up to practice would play at least half the game and get to bat.”

That idea didn’t always mesh with some parents, who were more interested in winning.

“We wished the parents would have been banned,” Davis said.

As he took care of his Little League players, Whitney also took care of his clients. He was a firm believer that everyone was not guilty until found otherwise in a court of law.

“We talked a lot about what our role was in society,” Davis said. “Bob was a real champion of poor people and the less fortunate. I never saw him turn down a case because people didn’t have money.

“That was Bob. Until the day he died, that was Bob.”

Ziegelhofer wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that about his former colleague.

“Bob had that gruff exterior, but his heart was as big as the sky,” he said.

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This article originally appeared on Mansfield News Journal: Robert Whitney served on Lexington OH board of education for 60 years

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