A man who climbed the highest mountain in the Rockies, crossed the Arctic Circle in a Norwegian ship – and taught scores of students at Midland University—has died.
Retired music professor Charles Wilhite, whose career at Midland spanned more than 40 years, died Friday.
He was 88.
“He’s impacted so many lives,” said Ann Wilhite, his wife of 50 years. “Students of his are playing the organ and directing choirs at area churches and teaching in area schools.”
One of his students, Nancy Schroeder, a church musician and retired music educator, hit a high note when talking about her former professor.
“I appreciated his professionalism,” she said.
Schroeder described Wilhite as “a true musicologist, who taught all us music majors a deep love of music history, composers, the great hymns of the church and how to play them on the pipe organ.”
Former student Amy Spies has been a professional church musician ever since she started taking lessons from him in the 1990s.
“I have such fond memories of Dr. Wilhite,” said Spies, director of worship arts at First Lutheran Church in Fremont. “He was so knowledgeable about all the different things in music and he was passionate about sharing that with his students. He taught me so much about playing the organ, the importance of church music and the history.”
Alcyone Scott, MU professor emeritus of English and humanities, commended Wilhite.
“I cherished him as a colleague,” Scott said. “Charles set a tone for what a professional teacher was like at the college level.”
Wilhite, who was devoted to learning, used grants to continue his studies. The Wilhites set up a grant for which other educators could apply to go off and study.
“I won it twice,” Scott said.
The son of a Methodist minister, Wilhite was born in Texas where his appreciation for music began.
“I can’t remember when I didn’t know how to read sheet music,” Wilhite said in Midland Warrior yearbook article by Jeff Long.
Wilhite was a student at Dallas High School when he realized he wanted to be a music teacher.
His parents encouraged him and made sure Wilhite went anywhere he wanted to go to hear good music.
While still in high school, Wilhite heard plenty of quality music as an usher for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
He graduated from Dallas High School and Hendrix College.
Wilhite earned a master’s of music from Southern Methodist University and master’s of sacred music from Union Theological Seminary.
He began as an organist choir master in Episcopal churches in Monroe, Louisiana and Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Wilhite taught in an Episcopal school in Vicksburg and a year at Kenyon College in Ohio.
He then decided to focus on teaching and went to the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, to earn his doctorate.
Wilhite came to Midland in 1963 to teach music.
“It was just a job to pay the bills,” Wilhite said in the yearbook story.
But Wilhite found that he liked the job – and never left.
He earned his doctorate in 1968.
During the summers, Wilhite would study at various locations, including: Boston College; Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York and the Royal School of Church Music in the United Kingdom.
Wilhite’s academic accomplishments weren’t achieved because of ambition or ego, but something he did to be better in the classroom and in church ministry.
“He was a very modest person,” his wife said.
And a servant.
“Charles’s life was one of service,” she said. “He chose to remain at a small liberal arts church college. Teaching was important to him. His focus was serving other people rather than himself.”
Wilhite taught music history, theory, organ and piano at Midland.
In the yearbook article, Wilhite said he enjoyed teaching, because it gave him a chance to grow.
For one, he learned more about music in his interaction with students beyond what he learned in school.
And it gave him an opportunity to see the positive affects he had in students’ lives.
Teaching also helped him become more aware of all the different people in the world – a lesson he hoped had made him a better person and more effective teacher.
Wilhite said he tried to teach skills that students could apply later in their careers and in life.
In a 2005 Tribune article, Wilhite also said he was proud of his involvement with the Odyssey program. He was one of seven professions who lectured on historical personalities.
He covered Albert Schweitzer and Johann Sebastian Bach as part of his curriculum.
“When I retire, I will miss contact with the students and the fun of seeing them develop from the green novices that they were as freshmen,” he said in the Tribune story. “There are always those that you see develop to where they say, ‘I understand,’ and that understanding is what you’re in business for.”
During his time at Midland, Wilhite worked under six college presidents and saw at least two major curriculum changes.
He’d see major campus expansions and building constructions along with growth in the student population.
Besides teaching students, Wilhite was Midland’s chapel organist and successively organist at Fremont’s First United Methodist, St. James’ Episcopal and First Congregational churches.
He traveled widely in the United States and Europe. He climbed Long’s Peak in the Rockies and sailed the Atlantic in the Queen Elizabeth. He kept up with current news, enjoyed PBS British comedy, Masterpiece Theatre, baking shows, “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “The Price is Right.”
Most people will remember Wilhite as a music professor and church musician.
“He was a very special man,” Ann said. “He was a man of deep faith. Even when he retired, we went to church every Sunday. Church was very much a part of his life, particularly the music of the church.”
She noted something else:
“He was always centered,” she said. “He saw clearly what was happening around him in the world and he often knew what should be done.”
The service for Wilhite starts at 2 p.m. Thursday at Sinai Lutheran Church, Fremont.