Benjamin C. Whitten, a prominent Baltimore educator and community activist who served as president of the Baltimore Urban League, died Sept. 21 of cancer at Good Samaritan Hospital. The Morgan Park resident was 89.
"Ben was a true giant in the Baltimore public school system and could easily have been superintendent. He knew the system inside and out," said Dr. Walter G. Amprey, who was superintendent from 1991 to 1997. "He wore many hats and was a giant in both education and civil rights."
"I worked with him and under him. Ben reacted to the students extremely well and was anxious for their achievement. He stood for the kids and pushed teachers to do better," said Lloyd M. Alston Sr., a colleague who retired from city schools in 1984.
"He devoted his time to being out in the school and in the classroom, which was for the benefit of the students. He didn't sit in an office," said Mr. Alston. "He insisted on change and improvement in programs that teachers were teaching to the youngsters."
The son of educators, Benjamin Carr Whitten was born and raised in Wilmington, Del.
"His father died when he was just 6 years old. His mother then began teaching at night and working as a receptionist for a physician during the day in order to provide for the family," said his son, Benjamin C. Whitten Jr. of Baltimore.
Dr. Whitten was 15 when he graduated in 1939 from Howard High School in Wilmington. He then enrolled at Pennsylvania State University, where he became the first African-American member of Iota Lambda Sigma, an industrial arts fraternity, and also joined Omega Psi Phi Fraternity in 1940.
"He made the dean's list for six semesters and graduated with honors. In 1943, he earned a bachelor's degree in industrial education," his son said.
Dr. Whitten was drafted into the Army in 1943 and served with the Transportation Corps in
England and France. He was discharged in 1946 with the rank of master sergeant.
After the war, he worked as a training specialist with the Veterans Administration in Wilmington and Philadelphia, until returning to Penn State in 1947, where he earned his master's degree in 1948 in industrial education. In 1961, he earned a doctorate in education, also from Penn State.
Dr. Whitten began teaching industrial arts in Baltimore in 1948, and was appointed vice principal of Carver Vocational-Technical High School in 1958.
He was vice principal of Edmondson High School from 1963 to 1964, when he was named principal of General Vocational School No. 52, a position he held for two years, until being appointed principal of Cherry Hill Junior High School.
In 1968, he was named director of vocational education for city schools. He retired from that post in 1979.
It was during Dr. Whitten's tenure as director of vocational education that he persuaded Mayor William Donald Schaefer to have the Hollywood Diner, which was used in the films "Diner" and "Sleepless in Seattle," donated to the city for use in training vocational students who were planning food service careers.
Other achievements included using federal funds to expand vocational programs as a supporter of the Vocational Education Act.
He chaired the Urban Vocational Education Task Force for the American Vocational Association and was a founder and president of the National Association of Large Cities' Directors of Vocational Education.
He had been a member of the National Advisory Council for the National Center for Vocational Education at Ohio State University, and had served as a consultant to the U.S. Office of Education's Vocational and Adult Education Division.
"Ben Whitten was a mentor to me and he affected so many people, both students and other leaders in the school system in a positive way," said Dr. Amprey. "When I became superintendent, I commissioned him, Louis Richardson and John Ward to do a strategic five-year plan for me, to take the school system forward, and they did an excellent job."
"He was an outstanding educator," said Benjamin C. Whitten Jr. "His mission was to provide the best possible education to children everywhere, particularly those who have been historically disenfranchised, traditionally marginalized and institutionally undereducated."
Dr. Amprey described Dr. Whitten as being a "very pleasant man who insisted on everyone following the rules and procedures."
"He did not suffer fools lightly. He had high expectations for anyone who worked with him," Dr. Amprey said. "However, he insisted on cordiality, and whenever he came into a room, he shook everyone's hand. He was a stickler for protocol."
In retirement, Dr. Whitten turned his attention to furthering racial harmony and equality. He served as director of the Minority Contractors Technical Assistance Program and on the Council for Equal Business Opportunity, which benefited minority business owners.
He was the eighth president of the Baltimore Urban League, serving from 1982 until he retired in 1987. During his tenure, he oversaw the implementation of programs designed to promote education, employment, health and human services, and housing and consumer services.
He was presented the Parren J. Mitchell Unity Award in 1987 by the Baltimore Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Community Service Award from Penn State.
From 1983 to 1986, he served as chairman of the Judicial Nominating Commission for Maryland's 8th Judicial Circuit.
Dr. Whitten served on numerous boards, including that of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Boys' Latin School, Metropolitan Baltimore Junior Achievement and on the Governor's Advisory Committee for Manpower and Development.
He was involved in community outreach programs for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and was a member of the Alliance for Blacks and Jews.
Dr. Whitten was an avid track and field fan and enjoyed attending the annual Penn Relays. He also played bridge and tennis and was a world traveler.
He was a communicant for more than 57 years of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity 2300 W. Lafayette Ave., where a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 6.
In addition to his son, Dr. Whitten is survived by his wife of 63 years, the former Lucretia Bibbins, who had been an accountant in the comptroller's office at Morgan State University; a brother, Tobias Whitten of Wilmington, Del.; a sister, Ann Adams of Washington; and four nieces.