Local author returns to college after 90, recalls experiences
By Coree Reuter -- Daily Correspondent
Charles Clyde Whitfield may be 91 years old, but his youthful soul triumphs over the number that marks the passing of his years.
Hearing his easy laugh and seeing the sparkle in his eyes, it's easy to forget Whitfield's age. Although he isn't moving as well as he used to, his mind and memories are as sharp as ever, and his enthusiasm for writing and education has allowed him to write and publish his first book, "Fractious Family Lore."
"I've been writing for the last few years, and I was introduced to a class at Lord Fairfax Community College, and I liked my professor and he took a liking to me, and when he had another class a few years later, creative nonfiction, he invited me," said Whitfield, a Woodstock resident. "Everyone in the class had college credits, well I didn't have credits. I was a little intimidated. I was in class with retired college professors and Fortune 500 company CEOs, but they took a liking for me, and the professor said I had a voice. They encouraged me, and though I wasn't sure I could, I had people help me on the process, and by God, I did it."
Brent L. Kendrick, an English professor at Lord Fairfax, had Whitfield in several of his classes, and watched the book grow from an idea into reality as Whitfield made his way through his classes.
"I find it amazing that someone at that age is taking college classes and is writing," said Kendrick. "It's wonderful that someone at his age is taking college classes. When I first met him he didn't know how to use the computer, and he rose to the occasion and has succeeded with that. Charles has a rich language, and when I first read his work, I wondered how anyone could possibly edit it, because the moment you start to edit it, it loses all the color, the gloss, the flavor. Charles' language is part of the beauty of his writing. He [is] exceedingly lively, spirited, young at heart, has a great sense of humor. I think people who meet him think, 'I want to be like him when I grow up.' He has a lifelong love of learning."
Whitfield's book is a collection of stories from his childhood in southern Georgia to poetry about his life in Virginia. His writing is descriptive and elegant, reflective and humorous, and he wraps the whole package in a style that easily transports the reader back to the old days on the farm.
"I don't want to inject myself in a story, because what you're trying to do is realize how the others are speaking and feeling and treating you," he said.
The book has found a home in several local community libraries, including at LFCC, in addition to being available online via Barnes & Noble in eBook form.
He said the hardest part of the entire process was learning to use the computer, and that without the help of the free computer lab at the Shenandoah County Library in Edinburg every Friday, he might never have gotten the project finished.
"Due to the help I received, it was easy. They helped keep my enthusiasm going," said Whitfield. "I can't conceive that [at] my age, to be told, 'Hey, you have a book in print that anyone can download [anywhere in the world].'"
Whitfield was born in 1920 in southwestern Georgia, about 25 miles from Tallahassee, Fla. He grew up on his family farm and moved to Virginia in 1942 to build torpedoes for the U.S. Navy. After he was released from the service, he eventually became a broker. He married his childhood sweetheart, and has three children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
At 91, Whitfield has played witness to a dynamic period in history. He was 7 when Babe Ruth broke the home-run record, 8 when penicillin was discovered, 13 when Prohibition ended, and 19 at the beginning of World War II. When Mount Rushmore was completed he was only 21. In his 30s, "Peanuts" was first printed, Queen Elizabeth took over the throne of England and segregation was ruled illegal in the United States. The Berlin Wall was built, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Martin Luther King, Jr. met the same fate when Whitfield was in his 40s. Whitfield saw man set foot on the moon at 49, and at 50 watched the Beatles break up.
In his 50s he witnessed the Watergate scandal, the foundation of Microsoft and saw the release of "Star Wars." In his 60s he saw the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, the discovery of AIDS and the invention of the personal computer by IBM. At 69, he watched the Berlin Wall fall. In Whitfield's 70s, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, the Cold War ended, the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed and scientists cloned sheep. He was 81 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, and was touring Europe for the first time. When the Iraq War began, he was 83.
When Whitfield was 88, an African-American took the presidential seat in the United States for the first time.
When asked what he felt was the most significant social change he's seen in his many years, Whitfield quietly spoke about living during a time when segregation was at its peak.
"As a farm lad living with these good African-American people and not realizing how they were treated. Socially, that was a shame, so to move from that era, to come to where we are now, my God the change," reflected Whitfield. "To move from an era you can barely imagine, that you're there with these people, who socially weren't allowed to sit at your table, to go to school with you, and yet you swam with them, played ball with them, socialized with them, to be in that society and live through that integration and separation. To think that could exist now is almost impossible to believe."
Whitfield continues to move forward with an energy and zest for life that is infectious, while reflecting fondly on where he's been. He is already planning more writing projects, and plans to enroll in another writing class this summer.
With such a wealth of experiences behind him, Whitfield would appear to have many words of wisdom and advice for the next generation, but with a warm smile, he offered only age-old truths.
"Respect. Honor. Love one another. Because if you're grateful, you can't be hateful," said Whitfield. "We're living in an era where you can't get away from almost hating people, but we hope the mortal is not the real. Stay with harmony, and don't let the discord hit you, whatever happens will happen, and you'll be in a position where you hate, but as the good men said, loving your enemies is the toughest thing you will have to do. Endeavor to respect the position others may take, and agree with your adversary, even when it's not easy."
"I don't know what 91 is supposed to look like, but I like being here," Whitfield finished with a bright, joyous laugh. "I don't like the alternatives."