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Paying tribute to Mark Whitfield

Right, Mamie and Mark Whitfield on the day the street in front of Jasper Banking Company was renamed in his honor. “Well they’re not supposed to do that until you die. I think somebody’s trying to give me a hint,” their daughter remembers Mark saying.

 

When an important man dies, how is he best remembered? An important man to Pickens County, Mark Whitfield passed away Jan. 12, leaving a long list of accomplishments tied to his decades of service through Jasper Banking Company.

Whitfield began at the bank in 1948, working part-time while still in high school. His job then included some coal stoking in winter to keep the bank heated. Later he became a teller. After two years away in the Army, Whitfield returned to the bank as a full-time employee. He is said to have worked every job in the place on his way to becoming chief executive officer in 1971, a job he held until Sept. 2010, when he retired without fanfare.

While Whitfield always performed as a man abundantly dedicated to his work, his motivation lay beyond profit totals or stars for his resume´. Working through a local bank, Whitfield used his clout as boss and his influence beyond the bank to serve the community at large.

From 1976 until his final illness, Whitfield served on the Pickens County Development Authority Board, working to bring industry and commerce into the county. He was an original director on the local hospital authority board that gained a county hospital for the community, a hospital since become Piedmont Mountainside Medical Center.

 

For many years, Whitfield served on the board of the local technical school. Before Jasper had a city fire department, Whitfield served with Kent Mosley, his partner in a two-man volunteer fire company protecting the city. And for years under Whitfield's leadership Jasper Banking Company extended loans to Pickens County citizens so they could found businesses or buy homes. He was named Pickens County's citizen of the year in 2004.

Whitfield was never a man to talk much about himself, so for any clues to his upbringing you would have to press his family. With his oldest sister Dot and his older sister Ruth, Mark grew up in the home of his parents John and Lila Whitfield. Their homestead stood west of Highway 53 opposite Brendanna Lane near the site of the present Royston plant.

Theirs was a tough childhood economically, Mark's sister Ruth Hinton remembers. She remembers the family charging groceries at Herschel O'Briens store near where they lived and her father always paying that bill first out of his Georgia Marble Company wages. If he happened to have money left over, John Whitfield would buy his children an Orange Crush or an RC Cola, Ruth recalls.

They hauled drinking water from a muddy spring run, she said, and let it sit overnight to settle before they could use it.

Their mother Lila made extra money feeding workers who labored at a marble crushing plant where Royston is now, Ruth said. And the family took in boarders.

"We were poor, but Daddy was very saving," she said. "He had two brothers. One was very poor, and one was up in this world, but he had to borrow money from my daddy," she laughed.

Mark's work ethic he probably learned from their mother, Ruth said. She remembers waking to the early morning sound of their mother already out chopping weeds in the family garden.

Her brother grew up with a mind of his own, Ruth said. "Mama sort of petted him 'cause he was the only boy and the last to be born, so he sort of had his way about things."

"He always had this trouble with his heart," she said. "We probably didn't get the medical care we should have had when we were children." Ruth remembers times as a child when her brother was badly sick. "Strep attacks heart valves if not treated properly," she said. Ruth made her career as a nurse. "We didn't get medical care, but nobody got medical care in our day," she said.

If that sounds sad, Ruth Hinton rejects the idea that sadness prevailed then in any general sense. "We had a happy childhood, a very happy childhood, and we loved one another," she said.

Weekends the Whitfield children would walk all the way from near Royston to their Grandmother Little's house near the modern site of Pickens County Middle School. Ruth remembers them walking back home, Mark's pockets stuffed with jars of jelly Grandmother Little had made, and Mark always out front.

"He always had to be the leader, and he always had to walk ahead of the others," she laughed. "He was quite independent. We were out of the Jasper district for going to school," Ruth said. But Lila Whitfield,  a strong determined woman, secured her children a place in Jasper's school despite the geography. "We walked to school, and Mark wouldn't walk with us," Ruth said. "They finally gave us a bus. Well Mark wouldn't ride with us either."

Later a school teacher at Jasper would haul a carload of kids from the Whitfield neighborhood on her way in to work. These riders were mostly girls, Ruth said, except Mark. "He'd hitchhike rather than ride with a bunch of girls," she said.

"Mark didn't ever go to church with us though he was a baptized Christian," she said. Her brother was baptized at Free Hope Baptist Church off of Worley Crossroads, Ruth remembers.

"I tried my best to get him to go to college," she said. "I was gonna pay his tuition. He went one semester [to Reinhardt College], and that was that. He always had a job somewhere."

Mark drove a chicken truck for a while, she remembers. "He told me once if he could do anything he wanted to do––anything––what he wanted to do had been a truck driver."

Mark Whitfield's daughter Sandra Whitfield Brown also recalls her father's love for truck driving. "Back when the bank used to close on Wednesday," Brown said, "Daddy would go to Ingram Trucking Company and drive for Cecil Ingram. Never took money for doing it. He just enjoyed doing it."

Ruth Hinton remembers her brother building "truck wagons" as a boy, wooden go-carts for coasting downhill. "They'd run that truck wagon from the top of the hill––either run it into that branch or have a wreck on that bridge they built or miss the bridge altogether," she said. The sensation of wheels underneath must have been a good feeling early on.

Mark Whitfield's only child, daughter Sandra, was born in Lawton, Oklahoma while Mark and wife Mamie were out west during Mark's Army service. Mark and Mamie had married Jan. 12, 1952. She was from the Duncan family of Marble Hill. Family could not recount exactly how the two had met, but Mark and Mamie founded a strong partnership, him settling into life as a family man.

"I could not have asked for a better daddy to teach me responsibility and ethics," Sandra said. "You work first, and then you play."

"He was independent. When he made a decision, he made a decision," she said.

"I think that anybody that knew him knew that the extended community was part of his family, too," Sandra said. "He put his work first. But Mama knew that. And I knew that. He went to work the day after we buried Mama, and Mama wouldn't have expected anything less.

"Now he didn't know how to cook, and he didn't know how to operate a microwave," Sandra smiled. "Mama took care of him."

Ruth Hinton agreed. "Mamie, she petted him. She spoiled him," Ruth said. "She was just so wonderful." Mamie's death about a year and a half before Mark's began his decline, Ruth said. Whitfield died on the day that would have been his and Mamie's 59th wedding anniversary.

In the days since her father’s death, Sandra has heard many stories from people who remember getting a bank loan on Mark Whitfield's say at the time they most needed it, she said. Sometimes he stuck his neck out to do it. "He would butt heads if he thought it was the right thing to do,"she said.

"He was from that generation that thought your word was your bond," remembers Joyce Smith of Jasper Banking Company. Smith worked closely with Whitfield as executive secretary and human resources officer at the bank.

"He thought more of a contract made through a handshake than like a written contract, because he counted on your word," Smith explained. "If he gave his word, he meant it, and he expected the same from other people, too. He was the epitome of the old-time truthful man. He might have been too blunt at times, but you knew you could trust him.

"Mark wasn't about the money. Not at all. He was about helping the community through a community bank with local control. The bank was his life. It was."

Her father seldom took a vacation,  Sandra Brown said. "He and mother were very simple," she explained.

"They didn't live lavishly," Whitfield's grandson Chris Brown said.

"Lived in the same house 40 years," Sandra said. "They did enjoy camping." They rode motorcycles, she said, a Honda Gold Wing and trail bikes her father enjoyed.

"He didn't stay on the golf course like most bankers," she added. Never went in for the game. For many years, Mark Whitfield had a standing weekly appointment with his grandson Chris.

"Every Wednesday he would take me to Walmart and to eat, no matter what," Chris Brown said. Chris remembers sitting together on a bench at the store and seeing people come up to speak to his grandfather.

"I've been a teller at the bank two and a half years," Chris said. He began through the high school's Youth Apprenticeship Program, he explained.

Chris said one of his granddad's favorite things to eat was salmon patties and biscuits the way Mamie Whitfield cooked them. These were a standard request by Mark for Saturday breakfasts at the bank, Chris said. He remembers his granddad, Vonce Farrow, himself, and another employee Elaine Carver gathered in the bank's basement break room to enjoy the Saturday feast freshly arrived from Ms. Mamie's home kitchen.

Mark Whitfield and Vonce Farrow went back a long way as longtime employees at the bank, Chris said. "They got there at six to make coffee for everybody," he told me.

Asked for something specific he learned from his grandfather, Chris Brown replied, “I've just learned to pay respect to others.  I'll always remember that he always put other people before himself. I'll always want to be just like him.”

To spend 78 years on this Earth and leave that kind of legacy. Mark Whitfield lived well.

Jeff Warren can be reached at

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Comments   

Lanier Ingram
+3 #1 Lanier Ingram 2011-01-20 20:07
I along with others in the Jasper comunity lost a dear friend last week. Mark has been a dear friend, advisor, companion and mentor to me and my family for over 55 years. The coffee breaks at the old Jasper Drug Store next to the bank on main street bring back great memories. Telling the waitress when they asked what he wanted; "a glass of water, a toothpick and a smile".
He helped us in many ways with our business financial issues, as well as a "substitute truck driver". Mark was always a part of our Company Christmas party at the Sequoia Restaurant in Ball Ground.
I have many and lasting memories of a dear friend and glad that I could have him around those many years,
Lanier Ingram
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