Bill Whitbeck was an eloquent debater, someone who could summarize an argument in a clear, sophisticated sentence. But even Whitbeck might have had trouble neatly describing his life.
A war veteran, businessman, amateur engineer, advertising specialist and longtime Minnesota Republican stalwart, Whitbeck enjoyed a rich and eclectic life grounded in dignity and grass-roots political activism. He strongly believed that ordinary citizens must directly participate in politics at least once in their lives.
“He really listened to people and thought about what they had to say,” said daughter Betsey Whitbeck. “He didn’t monopolize the conversation. He would take a couple of puffs from his pipe and make a statement that hit the central issue.”
Whitbeck died earlier this month of natural causes. He was 95.
Born in St. Paul, Whitbeck liked to tinker with things around the house from an early age. In his early teenage years, he served as an assistant to famed local photographer John Runk.
At the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, Whitbeck became the first U student to sign up for the U.S. Navy’s Reserve Officers Training Corp. After graduating in 1942, Whitbeck served as a Navy lieutenant and fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf off the coast of the Philippines, the largest naval battle of World War II and possibly the largest sea engagement of all time.
Following the war, Whitbeck worked at several advertising agencies, including McCann Erickson in New York and Vance Pidgeon & Associates in Minneapolis. He then joined Beck Inc., designing and selling copper-embedded circuit boards. Though not an engineer by education, Whitbeck picked up comparable skills in the Navy and quickly realized such technology offered improved reliability and power transfer.
“He saw a real future in that product,” Betsey Whitbeck said.
When Control Data Corp. acquired Beck, Whitbeck stayed on and oversaw development of technology that could bounce TV signals off the moon to the Earth. Whitbeck later became a vice president of sales at Advanced Machine Co., where he worked until he retired in 1990.
A self-described Rockefeller Republican, Whitbeck was an active member of the party, but he never ran for office. He served in most party positions at the congressional and state levels. Among the many candidates he helped elect were P.K. Peterson as mayor of Minneapolis and Bill Frenzel to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Third Congressional District. For his efforts, Whitbeck was twice named Most Outstanding Republican of the Year for Minnesota.
“He believed every citizen needs to be involved in politics, not just the professional politicians,” Betsey Whitbeck said.
Whitbeck also served as a Minnesota delegate to two Republican National Conventions. At the 1964 convention, Whitbeck helped nominate Minnesota congressman Walter Judd for president. Judd received a handful of votes.
In 1972, Whitbeck served as an elector who cast a vote for President Richard Nixon in the U.S. Electoral College.