In Memory of Dr. Robert Whitton: A Life Well-lived and the Tragedy of an Unnecessary Death

Nov 29, 2011 | Updated Jan 29, 2012

The world became a shade colder with the passing of Dr. Robert Whitton of Davidson College on November 11, 2011. I'm not normally squeamish about death. War has shown me too many dark things for ordinary tragedies to shock me anymore. Robert's death, however, has shaken me with an unexpected insistence. He was struck by a car while crossing the street at a crosswalk to get home from work on a rainy evening. After spending about a week in a coma, he succumbed to his injuries on Veterans Day. The driver didn't even appear to be speeding. It was all a horrible accident. Any of us could have been in Robert's shoes that night, just as easily as any of us could have been too inattentive to notice the dark form hurrying across the road ahead in the rain.

There is no moral to this awful story, but we would do well to reflect on the circumstances of Robert's death. Like it or not, Davidson sits at a chokepoint for traffic between I-77 and I-85. The town has bravely withstood the kind of breakneck-speed development that has eaten away the local character of many surrounding communities, but it gets harder every year to keep out the noise and mess of urbanization. There is little that Davidson can do to slow the growth of the nearby cities that are increasing the traffic flow on Davidson-Concorde Road, but perhaps there are additional safety measures that can be taken by the town to protect locals.

In many ways we are all implicated in this. We have all rushed through small town America on our way to somewhere "more important". We often think of a town's low speed limits as a speed trap to improve revenue instead of a way to keep people safe. We can disagree about the benefits of growth, but we need to stop pretending that we are so important that we deserve to drive through towns unhindered by crosswalks and speed limits. For me personally however, this necessary discussion also kind of misses the point.

What breaks my heart about Dr. Whitton's death is less the idea that I could have walked out into the street in his place, or even the thought that my own error could have easily caused such an accident. The sadness comes from a much deeper place because I know that the world becomes a smaller, darker, grimmer place when someone like Robert dies. He was a wonderful human being who cheerfully lifted up the spirits of the people around him with the remarkable way that he lived his life.

Dr. Whitton and I met on the first day of classes during my freshman year at Davidson. It was August of 2001. Thinking about that time is like traveling to an alien world. 9/11 was still two weeks away, I was going to become a famous physicist, and Saddam Hussein was just another dictator on the news. As soon as Robert introduced himself, I knew that I would like him. He was warm, effusive, and loved to laugh. In addition to his many personal qualities he was also a gifted teacher and was equally at home in the classroom with advanced students or avowed math-phobes. His joy for teaching left a mark on generations of Davidsonians.

Robert and I went on to do an independent study in Differential Geometry during my sophomore year. We joked over coffee about metric tensors, vector valued functions, and things that I can't even pronounce or remember how to define. In short, we enjoyed each other's company. I eventually chose to become a Spanish major, join the Army, and deploy to Afghanistan. With time and distance we heard from each other less and less, but I thought of him frequently. We reconnected eagerly when I came home to Davidson in 2009 to give a talk about my experiences in combat. The two of us sat down under one of the big white oaks by the track and talked about life. He had the same twinkle in his eye as always, and he seemed to understand my decision to enlist much easier than most of my professors, family, and friends.

In the days since his death, I have searched for meaning in the senseless tragedy that took him away from us. So far that meaning has eluded me. Instead I find memories of his hospitality on the evenings when he would open his doors to us for good food and conversation. It was on such an evening that the two of us sat down in his living room to pour over his personal library. Robert was a great lover of music and poetry, and he eagerly showed me his prized early edition of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". Coleridge's final lines make more sense to me now than ever before. We will miss you Robert.

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone; and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.