Wheelock Whitney Jr.’s hands steered the evolution of everything from professional sports to education and the arts to addiction treatment in Minnesota.
A businessman, civic leader, philanthropist and two-time statewide Republican candidate, Whitney died Friday at his horse farm in Independence. He was 89. He had received a cancer diagnosis several years ago and was hospitalized in recent days, said his youngest son, Ben.
“He will go down as a giant in Minnesota history,” said former Gov. Arne Carlson, who made Whitney his campaign chair and “kitchen cabinet” adviser. “You’d be hard-pressed to come across any project from 1950s on that doesn’t have Wheelock Whitney’s name on it.’’
Known to his family as “Whee,” Whitney was a charismatic leader who served from 1963 to 1972 as CEO of the Minneapolis investment banking firm that is now part of RBC Wealth Management U.S.
When he came to the company, then known as J.M. Dain and Co., in 1957 as a salesman, Whitney was a self-described “young whippersnapper” at the small investment firm. After taking the helm, he broadened Dain’s vision beyond Minnesota. He backed local companies and oversaw an unprecedented period of growth that made the firm a regional powerhouse.
John Taft, CEO of RBC Wealth, described Whitney as “the father” of the current company. Whitney remained interested and served as Taft’s mentor and friend, often sending him handwritten notes.
“He is without question the most impactful community leader I have known in my life,” Taft said. “Charismatic, principled, compassionate, generous, larger than life … just a remarkable human being.”
Whitney retired from Dain in 1972, at 45, and went on to teach a class on management perspectives at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Often he’d bring in friends who were current or former CEOs and grill them about the secrets of their success.
Gov. Mark Dayton called Whitney “an outstanding and influential civic leader.”
“He was a man for all seasons,” said Bert McKasy, a golf buddy and former politician. “Whether it was politics, sports or business, he could make things happen.”
Representative of an old breed of politician, Whitney was a Republican who got along with Democrats. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964, losing to Eugene McCarthy. In 1982, he ran for governor and attempted to shake the hands of Minnesotans in every town in the state. He lost that race to Rudy Perpich.
“He really helped build the Republican Party as a modern moderate party,” Carlson said. “That has since fallen off. But in its heyday of the ’50s to ’90s, it was the imprint of Wheelock.”
A player in sports world
Whitney’s impact on Minnesota sports transcends that of any athlete. Rallying politicians and business leaders, he helped attract every major professional franchise to the state.
In 1960, he helped make the Twin Cities a Major League Baseball expansion site. For more than two decades he was on the board of the Minnesota Twins.
Later he helped put the North Stars hockey team in Minnesota and raised money to build the Met Sports Center. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was part of a local ownership group of the Minnesota Vikings.
Whitney was born in St. Cloud in 1926. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where he met former President George H.W. Bush, who was a few years older. They became fraternity brothers at Yale University and lifelong friends.
A lefthander, Whitney enjoyed sports from an early age, winning an eighth-grade ping-pong championship in 1941, according to the St. Cloud Times. Ben Whitney recalled that his father rarely let his kids win at the game, even when he played righthanded or sat in a chair.
An avid horseman and rider, he had the winner’s touch with horses, too. The second horse he bought, a thoroughbred named Ruken, ran in the Kentucky Derby.
Devoted to his family
Long after retiring from business and politics, Whitney remained influential. He was one of the first corporate leaders to speak against a 2012 proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned gay marriage in Minnesota.
Along with his first wife, Irene Hixon, who spoke publicly of her alcoholism, he co-founded the Johnson Institute in 1966, one of the nation’s first alcohol and drug addiction treatment centers. Among those to credit Whitney for helping them sober up were former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad and Minnesota Viking great Cris Carter, who thanked Whitney at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Whitney and Hixon, who died in 1986, also gave millions to the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, seeing college as a critical ladder of opportunity.
A decade ago, Whitney married Kathleen Blatz, a state Supreme Court justice who served in the state House from 1979 to 1994. Friends called them Minnesota’s top power couple, but remarked on how much they adored each other.
Ben Whitney said his dad always made time for him, his brothers, Wheelock II and Joe, and sister Pennell.
“He had this enormous public life, but he was incredibly attentive and loving to his family,” Ben said. “He taught us how to be intentional in the world and to contribute in some way.”
Whitney wanted to pass those values on to his 11 grandchildren, as well. On their first birthdays, he wrote each of them a letter about his hopes for their lives, and about his own. He bound them into a book called “Letters to Grandchildren.”
Last year, his grandchildren gave him their own book, “Letters to a Grandfather.”
Staff writer Neal St. Anthony contributed to this report.