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E.B. Whitten (1907-1989).

E.B. Whitten (1907-1989)

Mr. Elton Barber Whitten, 81, Triad United Methodist Home, Arbor Road, died early Wednesday morning at Forsyth Memorial Hospital... That opening sentence in an obituaries column of the September 1, 1989 issue of the Winston-Salem Journal, carried an enormous impact of memory and emotion for thousands of us who were related to E.B. Whitten through the discipline of rehabilitation. For many years he had served us and our professional interests and we had looked to him as a mentor, leader, and friend.

E.B., as he was respectfully referred to by his friends and associates, came to rehabilitation work from the field of education where he had been a teacher and an administrator. He was appointed as the supervisor of Vocational Rehabilitation in his native state of Mississippi in 1944.

This was at a time when the rehabilitation movement was becoming established as a part of the spectrum of support and welfare programs operating at the state level, while being led and financed substantially at the federal level. Difficulties were constantly being generated because of the uncertainties in definitions and focus and in the administrative positioning of rehabilitation on bureaucratic organizational charts. During the 1940s, vigorous and imaginative leaders at all levels of the amorphous association of rehabilitation workers, using volunteer committees to formulate plans, political procedures and proposals, determined that there should be a strong National Rehabilitation Association. It was at this time that they, by a stroke of good fortune, found E.B. Whitten.

Typical of E.B., when he became aware of the difficulties being faced by the committee charged with the task of writing a job description for and finding an Executive Director for NRA, he wrote a memorandum detailing his own thoughts on what was needed in the personality of the new Director and what his duties should be. And typical of his powers of communication, that memorandum so impressed the committee that they decided that he should be invited to accept the new and difficult assignment. Although he was not seeking the position and would have preferred to stay in Mississippi, he agreed to take the job.

It was an example of his devotion to his chosen profession that he made the decision to leave a secure and well-paid position--and a comfortable home--to come to Washington. He knew that the funding of his budget by an untested organization would be problematical. He knew he would have to lead a constituency of varied disciplines and loyalties. And he knew that he would have to try to establish rehabilitation's status and programs in a milieu of sophisticated infighters, lobbyists and power-oriented bureaucrats.

For over 25 years he led NRA. He wrote an historical success story during those years. The organization's membership grew from only a few hundred to over 35,000; federal appropriations for rehabilitation grew from only a few million to well over a billion dollars.

In thousands of different settings and at all levels of governmental and organizational power, he influenced decisions and actions, propelling the phenomenon and concept of rehabilitation to ever-higher levels of social and political awareness, acceptance and support.

E.B. worked in quiet and unspectacular ways. He was deeply sensitive to the feelings and vulnerabilities of others. This was of great value to him and his agenda when operating in areas of considerable emotional context. His opponents were many and able, but they nonetheless considered him a friend.

Conscientious politicians and their staffs recognized that they could depend on his reports and data. The many favorable votes on the issues that the National Rehabilitation Association supported indicated that trust.

It should not be assumed that E.B. was preoccupied with only political jurisdictional and financial problems. In the presentations to Congress regarding the design and passage of the all-important Public Law 565, Whitten and those he mobilized supplied explanations of the bill to legislators. New and creative provision was made for federal support for the professional training of rehabilitation counselors, for research and demonstration programs, and for establishing special rehabilitation centers. The votes at the final passing of the law were 81-0 in the Senate and 347-0 in the House.

E.B. was unusually successful in identifying NRA as the organization in the best position to mobilize diverse sources of influence, and to help them recognize their opportunities for cooperative action. He had a special talent for leading such coalitions. His intelligence and tact insured that adversary relationships did not interfere with team approaches for reaching group goals.

Better than most of the leaders in the movement, he understood the multidisciplinary nature of the rehabilitation process. He saw no merit in the strength-depleting struggles generated by the "politics of knowledge." He realized that disparate factions needed to work together.

Although his policies were essentially conservative, E.B. was a visionary. In 1970, when a number of leaders in rehabilitation were asked to present their views of the developments of the next decade, his were among them and were published in the Rehabilitation Record. He suggested that perhaps the ultimate goal of the rehabilitation movement should be the creation of a society so facilitating and accommodating that specialists and specialized advocates for persons with disabilities would no longer be needed.

E.B. received citations from two U.S. Presidents and another from the Rehabilitation Services Administration. He received distinguished service awards from Goodwill Industries of America, from the National Easter Seal Society, and from the National Rehabilitation Counseling Association. He was awarded the Silver Medallion by the National Rehabilitation Association.

It is rewarding to have known E.B. Whitten, and to have worked with him. He was a true "Southern gentleman," and was exceptionally committed and able.

The serendipitous event in 1948 that brought together E.B. Whitten, the National Rehabilitation Association and the idea whose time had come-- rehabilitations-- resulted in succeeding decades of fantastic growth in all facets of opportunity for persons with disabilities.

Thousands of beneficiaries, friends and colleagues will remember the legacy of E.B. whitten, and will be grateful to him, always.
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Article Details
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Author:Obermann, C. Esco
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Article Type:obituary
Date:Apr 1, 1990
Words:1011
Previous Article:Senator Tom Harkin: reflections on disability policy.
Next Article:Values in rehabilitation: happiness, freedom and fairness.


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