When Wheelock Whitney left a successful career in investment banking at age 45, he was positioned to pursue a life of leisure. Instead, for the next 44 years he dove into community engagement and public service, pursuing multiple projects and causes with high energy, infectious enthusiasm and philanthropic support. Whitney’s death Friday, two months short of his 90th birthday, leaves many Minnesotans with a felt loss.
The scion of a pioneering St. Cloud business family, Whitney was educated at Phillips Andover and Yale and had connections that could have brought him success in New York or Washington. Among his classmates was future President George H.W. Bush.
Instead, Whitney stayed true to Minnesota and delighted in projects that helped build this state’s quality of life. He was an unabashed booster of Minnesota sports and a leading participant and investor in efforts to bring big-league baseball, football and hockey to Minnesota. At one point, he served as president of the Minnesota Vikings.
Twice, Whitney sought elective office, running as a Republican in 1964 for the U.S. Senate and in 1982 for governor. Neither bid succeeded, but neither defeat dampened Whitney’s interest in government or his willingness to give voice to Eisenhower-style progressive Republican ideas. In 2012, Whitney helped lead the charge to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would have outlawed same-sex marriage.
He was a major donor to Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where a building bears his name, and a steadfast supporter of efforts to combat chemical dependency, which his first wife, Irene, had battled.
Even as he endured health setbacks in recent years, Whitney and his wife, former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, were regulars at civic events and fundraisers for education, the arts and social justice causes. Friends marveled at Whitney’s determination to live life to the fullest. Because he did, Minnesota’s shared life is fuller, too.