Visiting your uncle can change your life for good.
In the early 1950s, young Peter Whitis ’57 bounced from school to school as his parents moved around the country to find work. They eventually settled in Florida, but Peter had another journey to take. At 15, he came to Berea to visit his uncle, an artist named Frank Long. Bereans will be familiar with his work—his iconic portrait of Daniel Boone with his dog pointing toward Boone Tavern still stands in College Square, as well as his mural in Berea
Peter’s aunt, seeing his potential, suggested that he apply to Berea’s Foundation School. Without any formal documentation or parental permission, he interviewed with Dean Roy Walters, a meeting that would become the turning point of his life. Dean Walters saw something special in young Whitis and granted
He couldn’t have known at that age just how much this development would impact him, just as he could not have predicted that when he met a professor’s daughter, Martha Noss, in the 12th grade, they would spend the next 70 years together. He also did not foresee that among their earliest experiences together would be to join the entire College community to fight a forest fire. As students dug fire breaks, Dr. Louise Hutchins, the president’s wife, handed out sandwiches.
“We were really not trained or anything,” Whitis remembered. “We just did what we thought was necessary, what they told us to do. Back then we did everything, you know.”
“Everything” is fairly accurate. In college, his first job was washing dishes. Then he worked as a resident assistant, then an auto mechanic and then as a forester.
“Each semester, I could change,” Whitis said, “and I did not lose anything.”
As he explored occupations, Whitis was also exploring majors.
“I was interested in science,” he explained. “I was also interested in English. And I was interested in religion. There were many directions to go.”
Berea College helped Whitis explore his options, even sent him to Union Theological Seminary in New York City for a week to test the waters there.
Back in Berea, though, there was tension. After a half-century of state-enforced segregation, Berea College was integrated again. By this time Peter had met his soon-to-be-wife, Martha. Martha’s roommate, LaRue McMahon, was one of the first African American students to reintegrate at Berea College in 50 years, and the two young women became close friends in a town still segregated along racial lines. Peter had also become friends with a young African student who, though he’d been taught by white American missionaries, was rejected by a local church of the same denomination.
Martha’s and Peter’s relationships with their new friends spurred them to activism. The local pharmacy was whites only, so the young couple led a campus boycott. Though they only made pennies per hour at their campus jobs, they pulled together $100 to fabricate buttons with the College motto—God hath made of one blood all nations of men. Whitis said about 800 out of 1,000 Berea students participated in the boycott of the drugstore.
“A lady at the post office thought we were communists,” he related. “Other people said, ‘Hey, I like to go in there for milkshakes. I don’t want to give that up.’ And other people thought we were just too idealistic.”
Idealistic, perhaps, but the store did change its policy, and after that, even communists could buy a milkshake there.
Peter and Martha married in Danforth Chapel at 19, and soon they were spending summers with a group of other students at the Del Monte canning factory in Rochelle, Illinois. Berea students had a stellar reputation at the company, and the money offered was good enough that even Berea professors joined them there.
“One summer, we all lived in the same house,” Whitis remembered. “Martha was cooking on a hot plate for everybody. She was working there in the plant but also trying to keep us from starving.”
Martha studied biology and art, and she finished her training in nursing at the University of Cincinnati. Peter eventually settled on a path toward medicine. He complemented his studies with a job at the hospital, where he became an X-ray technician, responded to emergencies and learned to do lab work. Upon graduation, Berea College provided Whitis with a grant to go to medical school. He joined the inaugural class of future doctors at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
Once he finished his internship, the U.S. government established a “doctor draft” that pulled Whitis into the service of the Navy. He had planned to be a surgeon, and the Navy was encouraging him to follow that path, but while there were many surgeons, there were only a few psychiatrists.
“I was offered a surgical residency by the Navy,” he explained, “and they said they would forgive me one of the years that I owed the Navy if I would take this surgical residency. And boy, I was really torn. I finally decided on psychiatry because I thought the need was so strong.”
As Peter finished his medical training, Martha finished her B.A. at Berea, and the couple settled down in Iowa, and later, Wisconsin. The bulk of Peter’s career was spent in child psychiatry. When she retired, Martha returned to her love of art, specifically oil painting, and obtained a second degree in art history and music from Clark College in Dubuque 30 years after her first. Martha passed away two years ago at the age of 88.
From this one Berea union spawned two new generations of medical professionals. They have four sons, their spouses and 10 grandchildren. Among them are nine MDs, one Ph.D., one medical student and a physician’s assistant. The youngest grandson, Will, is studying to be a physical therapist.
“The model of service from Berea carried over to our family,” Whitis said. “One of our grandchildren was in the Peace Corps. Two of our grandchildren are teachers. Various family members have gone on medical missions to Tibet, Haiti and Afghanistan. My daughter-in-law won a humanitarian award for her work at the free clinic. Our entire family has been medically oriented and service oriented, and I think that began with what Martha and I learned at Berea.”
“Without Berea,” he continued, “I don’t think any of this would have happened.”