Bobby Winfred Whitlock
February 5, 1931 – July 3, 2019
Bobby Winfred Whitlock, 88, passed away on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. A graveside service will be at 1 PM, Sunday, July 7 in the Masonic and Eastern Star Cemetery at Whitestone followed by a 2 PM celebration of his life in the Whitestone Chapel officiated by Dr. Pat Spicer and Pastor Daniel Dickard. The family will receive friends following the service. Bobby was born in Cateechee, SC to the late Reverend William and Flora Aiken Whitlock. He served in the US Army in Korea and carried the grief of taking other human lives to his last days but he was very proud to be involved in integration of American combat units. After the military he went back to college and met Martha Colvard on the steps of the library at Appalachian State University and they’ve celebrated a wonderful marriage for 63 years. He and Martha loved to travel together. Bobby was a master gardener and expert target shooter. After receiving his master’s degrees in physics and math he went to work for McDonald Douglas in the missile program. He had a successful and productive career in the missile program but felt God calling him to teach so he went back to school and earned his master’s degree in education. He started teaching in Charlotte, NC during the civil rights movement and was the first to integrate the faculty. Bobby had strong leadership skills and inspired and often taught people to be much more than they ever thought they could. He is survived by his wife, Martha Whitlock of Greensboro; son, Roger Whitlock of Houston, TX; granddaughters, Molly and Meg Whitlock; and sisters, Ellaree Elrod and Jean Campbell. His brothers Ken and Troy Whitlock and sisters, Mary McGee, Sue Stines and Etrulia Lindsay preceded him in death. In lieu of flowers memorial contributions may be directed to Masonic and Eastern Star Home, 700 S. Holden Road, Greensboro, NC 27407. Online condolences may be offered at haneslineberryfhnorthelm.com. Hanes-Lineberry N. Elm chapel is assisting the family.
Bobby Whitlock, My Dad By Roger W. Whitlock
On this past fourth of July, one less combat veteran could stand up for the national anthem so we must stand for him from now on. The world is a greater place because of this warrior for civil rights, this rocket pioneer, and this Christian soldier. His was a life lived in struggle and with love and inspiration. He was born at the height of the Great Depression. His family traded a goat for a shotgun. It was different in those days, boys were taught to shoot and he could hit a chicken with a 41-caliber pistol bullet fired from his 4-10 shotgun. He hunted feral chickens during the war years because his family was poor and Mama could fix chicken with the biscuits they usually had. The chickens had gone wild and lived on the mountain behind the house. That was “good eatin’” as we would say today.
He never thought he was deprived or shorted, rather blessed with wonderful parents and loving brothers and sisters. His father was a Baptist minister. In a time when not many people had cars, it was a long way to the next town, and there were not enough ministers for all the small-town churches. That meant they moved very often where his Daddy felt lead by God. He went to a lot of schools and met a lot of church family. As the man I knew he never met a stranger. That embarrassed me as a teenager. Just a few weeks ago I reminded him and told him that I am exactly like him and that is one of the things I am most proud of.
He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a minister. By 1950 he found himself in Baptist Seminary but his country was once again enthralled in war. He knew soldiers needed ministers and even though he was exempt as a seminary student, he made his name available for the draft. He found himself in a horrible place called Inchon, on the coast of Korea with nothing but six miles of beach behind our army. Only battles like Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Saar cost more human lives, not even the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam. The scars from that terrible hand to hand combat never left him. In his last week he told me how sorry he was he had to kill in battle and wept as if it were last week, not seven decades ago. That was the depth of his heart.
One thing he accomplished that was not popular or very easy in 1952, that he was very proud of, and that helped shape his life and mine was that as a combat engineer he was one of the very first men involved it integration of American combat units. His best friend in that horrible war was a black man from Bath, North Carolina. Each owed the other his life.
He was young, strong, smart, and honorable when he came home. He went back to college and met a very beautiful young woman on the steps of the library at Appalachian State University. He was immediately smitten and my Uncle Roscoe introduced Dad to his wife’s sister, my mother. They were married for a few weeks less than sixty-three years.
After college he went to work for McDonnel Douglas in the missile program. I once asked him why his master’s degrees were in physics and math instead of engineering and he answered, “we didn’t have guidance counselors then.”
I was born in 1957 which was a very exciting year for engineers involved in the rocket program. He was working on a rocket to shoot down enemy Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles that we feared were carrying nuclear warheads. He was part of the team that designed and built the Nike Zeus, a missile that goes from the ground to over ten miles high in less than a minute. You may have heard of it because in the 1980s it was given to Raytheon and renamed Patriot. It is the missile our troops deploy as their iron dome today in 2019.
Sixteen days after my grand entrance to this world in 1957 the Russians orbited Sputnik. Our country did not want to use military hardware and had one failure after another; spectacular explosions and crashes all over black and white TV. Senator Lyndon Johnson of the Senate Space Committee came to his factory and asked if we had a military rocket we could get a satellite in orbit with. Three men, including my Daddy, answered, yes, off the shelf. Give us a month to prepare for launch. January 31, 1958, Explorer One rose into the sky and achieved orbit a top his Redstone rocket. Our next two satellites flew on that rocket.
It was April 1961 when Russian Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth. Once again, now vice president Lyndon Johnson came to his factory because we did not have anything that could lift our Mercury spacecraft. Dad’s team said, we can’t make orbit with something that heavy, but we can get him in space on a Redstone. Johnson asked them how much and my daddy and his boss asked, how much did the last one weigh? How much did it cost? How much is that per pound? How much do we anticipate this one weighing? Multiply the weight by the cost per pound and put ten percent on it since this one is manned. In May of 1961 Alan Shepard rode his Redstone into space and two months later Gus Grissom did too.
By 1965 his team was well into building the Saturn V moon rocket. They had the contract for the third stage and it was ready to fly but Boeing had been unable to deliver the first and second stages. The Apollo was ready to test but we had nothing that would lift it. He had a brilliant idea, bolt eight Redstones together for the first stage and use the Saturn V third stage as the second stage. Apollo One sat on his Saturn 1b (One B) rocket when the capsule burst into flames and killed the crew. I remember him saying over and over again that NASA had “go fever” and killed them because they were reckless. I always thought it was personal to him because had he not given the inspiration for the Saturn One first stage, Apollo One would not have been on the launch pad for at least another eighteen months. I told him recently that had they not had the fire, and it happened in space, we would never have known what happened and would never have made it to the moon; that the program would probably have been cancelled.
All of the orbital Apollo test missions, Skylab, and Apollo Soyuz rode his Saturn 1b. Every man that walked on the moon rode on his S-IVb (4 B) third stage. It was the stage that boosted the Apollo to escape velocity and carried the Lunar Module. I know it was a team, but for me it was always his team. He saw the writing on the wall and knew once we beat the Russians the space program was over.
I was beginning school and he chose to begin anew. He told me later that he had been called to be a minister and since he took a different path and went to war, he had failed his calling. He said, “God kept knocking and I realized I had a second chance as a teacher.” I remember a summer in my Uncle Roscoe’s mother’s basement in Boone, North Carolina while my Dad got a masters degree in education. My mother cooked and canned and did a lot of work on his papers for school so he too could work.
He became a teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina at a very rough time during the civil rights movement. The school system said that since he had integrated the first Army unit he would be ideal to be the first to integrate the faculty. That was a rough year. Somebody shot a bullet through our front window. A student pulled a gun on him. He was able to disarm the student without anybody getting hurt. I remember his saying a girl in his class told him she did not need to learn math because all she had to do was get pregnant and she would get welfare. I remember the story he told of the student that was a known troublemaker. He recruited the student by telling him he knew the student was a leader and he not only a teacher, but an outsider and he needed the student’s help. He had the student stand beside him at the front of the class and help present the lesson. He gained a lot of respect from the students and the faculty that year because the other teachers were afraid of the boy that became an asset to my daddy. By his leadership and choosing this troubled young man he encouraged the other students to connect in his classes and not make trouble and pulled the boy back from the precipice that takes so many young men from poor black communities.
I remember another incident a few years later when he was principal of an elementary school in South Carolina. That year they mixed the black school and white school evenly both faculty and students. A school board member came to our house for dinner. After dinner, when the little kid was supposed to be out of earshot, I heard the schoolboard member tell my Dad it was time he joined the Ku Klux Klan. My daddy threw him out of the house and told him not to come back. When I got up the courage to ask him about it he told me we would not be living in that town next year. Almost two decades latter I was the one that was asked the same question. I lost a friend and my biggest client because I already knew my answer before he finished his thought. A giant of a man, my Daddy taught me as a young teen. He rose to be assistant superintendent then stepped down and moved to another town as a teacher again. He said, I left the space program and went into the classroom to work with children. I realized I was no longer working with children and had to fix that mistake.
Twice in his career he chose to take a big pay and prestige cut to follow his calling to serve people in God’s name. I see his reward in every person that knew him. Everybody has something nice to say about Bobby and how he touched or inspired him.
Even the caregivers in the Care Center considered him a favorite and were amazed by his life. One of the interns was heartbroken as her time here came to an end because she was so inspired by his stories of growing up in a small town in the mountains in the thirties, his grandmother that was a Cherokee healer, and in the space program and never got to hear more. Her last few weeks she came by his room almost every day to see if he was mentally up to another story or question.
I met students in college that said he was the best math and science teacher they ever had and he was the one that inspired them to go into engineering.
Strangers have stopped me since I came here last Thanksgiving to tell me how special he was to them, something he did, or how he inspired them.
He always inspired and often taught people how to be much more than they ever thought they could be. He brightened many days and lightened many hearts because he never met a stranger and reveled in the success of the people he met. It was not possible to be around him without your mind, heart, and self confidence expanding because he believed in the best in each person he met.
His entire life he worked with the Masons and with my Mom in the Eastern Star. It was their life long charity. He traveled with my mother as she served in state and national offices. He was ambassador to Scotland and they got to go there one year. It is not only fitting but his choice that he be laid to rest in this place, not Arlington where he earned his place so many years ago. He brought honor here and here it shall rest as he goes on ahead of me and the rest of us to his reward.
In the end he was blessed with the peace of a man that has lived his life with God by his side and the Holy Spirit in his heart. He was not afraid of death as much as he was that my mother would not be safe without him here to take care of her. Little did he know it was probably the other way around more often than not.
My daughters, this is your heritage, your history, your family. It is yours to carry into the future.
- Reverend William and Flora Aiken Whitlock, Parents
- Martha Colvard Whitlock, Wife
- Roger Whitlock, Son
- Molly and Meg Whitlock, Granddaughters
- Ellaree Elrod and Jean Campbell, Sisters
- He is preceded in death by his brothers, Ken and Troy Whitlock and sisters, Mary McGee, Sue Stines and Etrulia Lindsay.
Masonic and Eastern Star Home
700 South Holden Road, Greensboro, North Carolina 27407
- Graveside Service Sunday, July 7, 2019
- Celebration of Life Sunday, July 7, 2019
- Visitation following the Service