The Legacy of a Loving Legend: Bus Whitehead's Wonderful World
Randy York's N-Sider
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For Bus Whitehead, life was an 82-year love story, and his memorial service Tuesday afternoon was a tribute to that simple fact.
It took a few extra minutes to pack Lincoln's Westminster Presbyterian Church. With no remaining seats in the sanctuary or the balcony, dozens whose lives Bus had touched watched via closed-circuit TV in the chapel.
Celebrating the Life of Bus Whitehead began with one of his favorite hymns, and "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" became the perfect launch for a service that did a great job of explaining why Milton Edgar "Bus" (short for Buster) Whitehead lived his life with so much faith, hope and love.
Avery Jaggers, one of Whitehead's five grandchildren, stood in front of a microphone with the other four grandkids behind her, and read a piece that Bus had written himself one Tuesday morning in his office more than six years ago.
It was his "What I Love" essay on life, and 12 of its 13 statements started with the words I Love. He described why he loved his wife and three children, his parents and his sister and his relatives and his friends. He explained with depth and emotion why he loved going to the office, playing cards, athletics, dogs and the outdoors.
His last three loves went beyond his favorite people and activities.
"I Love Lincoln," he wrote. "I love to ride around Lincoln and see the great progress that has happened. Lincoln has been very good to my family and me.
"I Love the USA - the greatest nation on Planet Earth," Bus wrote before ending: "I Love Jesus Christ and my faith."
The only statement that didn't start with "I Love" was one that began with "I Loved" to describe his parents. Now, sadly but triumphantly, Bus Whitehead, one of Lincoln's most social creatures, visible personalities, likeable donors and lovable fans, will be remembered in the past tense as well.
Thankfully, right after his son, Mark, delivered some touching reflections on Bus's life, there was a heartrending interpretation of one of his father's favorite songs - What a Wonderful World.
I see trees of green, red roses, too
I see 'em bloom, for me and for you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
Nebraska has countless loyal football followers, and Bus is certainly among them, but the Huskers had no basketball player more successful in a team sense and no basketball fan more loyal than one of its own legends.
The 6-foot-9 Whitehead was an all-conference player on Nebraska's back-to-back Big Six and Big Seven Conference championship basketball teams in 1949 and '50. He was named captain of NU's all-time basketball team. He earned the first Distinguished Hall of Fame Alumni Award and even played against Hall-of-Famer Bob Cousy in the East-West All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden.
None of that was mentioned at his memorial service because Bus was a man who would rather develop a relationship and love the world than promote himself, and his family stayed true to that philosophy in celebrating his life.
Whitehead believed, with everything in him, that Nebraska could not be in better hands with Tom Osborne as athletic director, Bo Pelini as head football coach and Doc Sadler as head men's basketball coach.
Bus attended 95 percent of the games in the 34-year history of the Devaney Center. To the end, he never lost hope that the Huskers someday will win their first modern-day regular-season conference basketball championship - a drought that is now 60 years old (Nebraska's Big Eight Championship in 1992 was a post-season tournament accomplishment, not a regular-season title).
"Bus loved Lincoln, he loved Nebraska, and he loved Nebraska basketball," Sadler said after Tuesday's service. "I'm sure he lived his life like he did when he played here. He was just a very giving person - the kind of guy who would put his own stats in the back end so he could do what was best for the team.
"He was the same way as a fan and a donor - always willing to give and never asking for anything in return," Sadler said. "I remember him being at every game, every luncheon and every banquet. I remember him and his wife waiting for every single player to come in before they would come inside at a golf outing. He was not only generous with his money, but with his time.
"I remember him coming to practice shortly after his wife died last year," Sadler recalled. "You wanted to go cheer him up, but it would end up like it always did - he would be the one cheering you up. He was always one of those guys who saw the glass as half full instead of half empty."
Where others see thorns, Bus sees roses. There wasn't a day that went by when he didn't think to himself What a Wonderful World.
I see skies of blue, clouds of white
Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
The first time Tom Osborne met Whitehead, Nebraska's athletic director was still at Hastings College in the late 1950s. Bus was living in Hastings and playing for the Phillips 66ers semi-pro team at the time.
"I got to play against Bus in the Hastings College gym," Osborne recalled. "Of course, I've been around him a lot in Lincoln. In the years I was coaching, I saw him every Monday at the Touchdown Club luncheons. He also started an FCA Bible study that I've attended for the last 35 or 40 years, so I would see him just about every Friday morning as well."
Osborne made regular visits to see his friend in declining health, and he was with Bus the night before he died. "We had a good conversation," Osborne said. "Bus was probably one of the staunchest supporters we've had for Nebraska Athletics. He was a good businessman and a good man, and he certainly had a lot of ideas and a lot of friends."
Henry Cech (pronounced Check) was Whitehead's basketball teammate from Chicago and close friend for 63 years. Tuesday's memorial service was a tough day for him. "Nebraska has a lot of great people, a lot of great fans, and a lot of great donors, but you're going to have to look real hard to find another booster like Bus Whitehead," Cech said. "Even when you measure him against the best, he sticks out like a sore thumb because he loved everybody, and everybody loved him.
"I introduced Bus to Jeannie (his wife who died last year after 56 years of marriage). They dated twice, then they got married," Cech said. "I played golf with Bus, and I played cards with him. I went fishing with Bus, and I went hunting with him. There are so many things that you think about. He never met a stranger, and he never had an enemy. If he had one, you'd have to scratch pretty hard to find one. I lost a good friend."
Cech said his good friend helped him appreciate every day. No wonder he laughed at the same time he was fighting back tears when Mark Whitehead told Tuesday's gathering that his dad loved Henry because Henry had a car, and the big kid from Scottsbluff could always bum a ride.
"I had a blue 1936 Ford Coupe, and I swear Bus drove it more than I did," Cech said. "He had his own parking place right behind the Lincoln Theater. The problem was, they'd always give him a parking ticket but since it wasn't his car, he never worried about it. Finally, he confessed to me that there were a lot of tickets out on that car, and we better get prepared. I'm just glad there wasn't any Internet in those days. We probably would have ended up in jail."
Studying hard at NU's Dental School while his buddy was enjoying complimentary transportation, Cech decided it was time for Bus to drive a bigger car, so he bought a Pontiac and avoided any forthcoming parking tickets from Lincoln police.
Wednesday, Cech went to the Lincoln Country Club, the scene of some of his favorite memories with his longtime friend. He met Jim Keck there, and the senior minister at Lincoln's First Plymouth Congregational Church remembered how upbeat Whitehead was when the two met a few years ago and how Bus told him he'd love Lincoln and enjoy every day of his life here.
Cech and Keck played golf Wednesday in the spirit of Whitehead's optimism. They could sense the legacy of a loving legend, and they couldn't help thinking, quietly to themselves, What a Wonderful World.
The colors of a rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands, sayin' "How do you do?"
They're really sayin' "I love you"
Jerry Fisher, the former head golf pro at the Lincoln Country Club and former head golf coach of the Nebraska women's team, also had a tough Tuesday, sitting directly behind the Whitehead family and next to Cech.
Fisher met Whitehead 40 years ago at the Lincoln Country Club. For the past decade, he has worked for Whitehead Oil Company as a salesman for 24 U-Stops, including 19 stations in Nebraska and five in Iowa.
As Whitehead's health failed in the past few years, Fisher was the one who took him to every football game, basketball game, breakfast, luncheon and banquet.
"I've probably talked to Bus either in person or on the phone every day for the past 10 years," Fisher said Wednesday as he was getting ready to leave the company parking lot that sits in the shadow of Lincoln High School.
Outside, there's an old company sign, two vintage gas pumps, four historic trucks, even a horse-drawn Whitehead Oil Company wagon.
"I've never seen anyone or met anyone who could relate so well to every single person he meets - whether it's a politician, an athlete, a coach, a businessman, a waitress or a janitor," Fisher said. "Bus loved people.
"I remember when he tried to tell me that he used to make cold calls to customers," Fisher said. "I told him he may have made calls, but he never made any cold calls because everyone in Lincoln knows a 6-foot-10 all-star basketball player when they see one. When Bus walked into a room, people would come up to shake his hand, not the other way around.
"I know how much Bus loved everyone around him, and I made sure I told him how much I loved him, too," Fisher said. "When you work with him, you hear him end almost every call telling people how much he loves them. Every Saturday morning, he'd even sit down and write his sister a letter and write letters to his kids and grandkids who lived out of town just to remind them of how much he loved them."
I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll never know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
Mark Whitehead kept his poise Tuesday when he talked about his dad. The one time that he almost lost it was when he surveyed a sanctuary crammed with more than 600 people and told them about something that he'd found in one of his father's scrapbooks.
It was a letter from legendary Oklahoma A&M Basketball Coach Henry P. Iba, who was on the verge of a national championship team. Iba was responding to a letter that Whitehead had written to him after playing on a Nebraska freshman basketball team that was the warm-up act for a less than mediocre varsity team.
Whitehead said his dad probably could have transferred to Oklahoma A&M, but Iba, a man of integrity, encouraged him to stay at Nebraska because Harry Good was a good coach, and the Huskers would benefit from players who would return to the team after supporting the U.S. in World War II. Cech was one of those who jumped to Nebraska straight from military service. So did Bob Cerv, one of the Huskers' best ever baseball players who also lettered four years in basketball.
With Whitehead leading the way, Nebraska became a championship team in a league that included Kansas and Kansas State.
The thought hit Mark Whitehead that if his dad had followed his heart in a tough time, no one would be sitting in Lincoln celebrating the life of one of the Huskers' biggest basketball legends.
"My dad told me that the rejection letter Coach Iba sent him was probably the best thing that ever happened in his life," Mark said.
The man who has been running his father's company for several years then admitted that seeing all the faces in a packed sanctuary reminded him of just how many lives his dad had touched.
And yes, another thought hit him at the same time - What a Wonderful World indeed.
Voices from Across the Nation
Jerry Bush was my father. When I was about 11 years old, he would take me to the bus station and send me off to Hastings to be a mother's helper for the Whiteheads. Then they moved to Lincoln right across the street from us on South 26 St. Bus helped my dad coach. It seems as if my life has always been connected to the Whitehead family. My husband worked for Bus while in college and grad school at UNL. We did live-in babysitting with his children - Sydney, Leslie and Mark. Bus Whitehead was one of the most loving and giving human beings we have ever known. He will be sorely missed. I loved Bus Whitehead. The mark he left on me and thousands of other people will live on forever. Karen Bush Hoiberg, Ames, Iowa (Editor's note: Jerry Bush was head basketball coach at Nebraska from 1955-63. He was inducted into the Nebraska Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991. Karen Bush Hoiberg is the mother of Iowa State Head Basketball Coach Fred Hoiberg).
Bus Whitehead's contributions to Nebraska, his family and the communities he touched are well documented. As you said, he leaves an impressive legacy. Some may not be aware, however, of his role in the early days of Nebraska's ethanol fuel industry. In the 1970s, most of his contemporaries in the petroleum business viewed ethanol as a threat. It did, after all, displace gasoline volume. Bus didn't see it that way. He believed a thriving ethanol industry benefitted his state, and he worked diligently to make it happen. He was, in fact, among the very first fuel dealers in the U.S. to sell ethanol at his stations, and he served on the state's Ethanol Board for many years. His unique perspective and leadership were major factors in the industry's ultimate success. Steve Sorum, Lincoln, Nebraska
I very much enjoyed reading your article about the "Wonderful Life" of Bus Whitehead. I was not able to attend his memorial service. However, after reading your article, it certainly felt like I got to share a little of it. Bus was truly one-of-a-kind and a most special man. His spirit certainly will live on in his wonderful family and their families. It was a true pleasure to have known both him and his wife, who are, no doubt, together in heaven!! Marjorie Partin, Houston, Texas
My ex-father-in-law, Rodney T. Cox, would tell great humorous stories regarding his years on the NU basketball team with Bus Whitehead and the rest of team. Rod passed away several years ago, but heaven is getting another great player. I am sure that Rod is smiling!!! Jim Van Marter, Amarillo, Texas
Thanks for the column on Bus. I was privileged to be his executive assistant for the last 10 years, and I will always remember the day he asked me to type his 'What I Love' list. It was March 2nd, 2004. As soon as I typed it, I told Bus I loved it. Bus was very kind, very generous and very loving -- to everyone. He was a very special man. We have an ice cream freezer in our conference room because Bus liked to share ice cream with his friends and business colleagues. There aren't a lot of people around like Bus anymore. He worked very hard, but he'd still take the time to share a special moment with just about anyone he knew. Teresa LaFave, Lincoln, Nebraska
There's no question that Bus Whitehead was a very successful businessman in Lincoln, but having grown up in Western Nebraska, he never forgot where he came from. To me, he was every bit the social leader as he was a business leader. That's why you would always see him reaching out to people of all levels wherever he happened to be. Because he had everyone's respect, he was a true community treasure. Jim Seiler, Lincoln, Nebraska
I never had the opportunity to meet Bus Whitehead, but I heard stories about how much he loved Nebraska and supported athletics, and apparently his support wasn't only just the campus in Lincoln. He attended many athletic fundraising banquets for the University of Nebraska-Kearney as well. I know because the first year I saw him, I asked someone who he was, and I was told "That's Bus Whitehead - he played for Nebraska when they won a basketball championship." Whenever I would see him at a UNK banquet, he was always smiling and having a good time with those around him. I found it interesting to learn more about someone who was important but never really saw himself that way. Steve Johnson, Kearney, Nebraska
Nice job on Bus. It was a very moving service and a nice tribute to Bus, who has been a good friend since 1958 when we were neighbors in Lincoln. Dick Beechner, Kearney, Nebraska