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Cedar Rapids theater stalwart, longtime principal Eugene Whiteman dies

His 1984 portrayal of Don Quixote still remembered

Gene Whiteman in 2011 in a publicity photo for the musical #x201c;Guys and Dolls#x201d; at Theatre Cedar Rapids. (Trevor
Gene Whiteman in 2011 in a publicity photo for the musical “Guys and Dolls” at Theatre Cedar Rapids. (Trevor Debth photo)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Remembered as a mainstay in the Cedar Rapids arts community and a longtime junior high school principal, Eugene Whiteman died Monday at age 91.

Whiteman acted in dozens of Theatre Cedar Rapids productions during his lifetime, from “My Fair Lady” in 1979 to “Guys and Dolls” in 2010, said J. David Carey, finance and administrative director for the theater group. Whiteman last performed, at age 90, in the 2016 Cedar Rapids Follies, according to his obituary.

Visitation takes place from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at Cedar Memorial Park Funeral Home, 4200 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids. A celebration of life is to be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, 310 Fifth St. SE, where Whiteman sang in the choir.

For many in the local theater community, Whiteman’s performance as Don Quixote in the 1984 production of “Man of La Mancha” still is remembered, Carey said.

“Invariably, the people that knew Gene would say that he was born to play that role,” Carey said. “He was the perfect Don Quixote — great vulnerability, beautiful singing voice and a really wonderful character actor. People still talk about that.”

Even after his last curtain call with Theatre Cedar Rapids in 2010, Whiteman and his wife Joyce continued to volunteer with the organization. Other volunteers often were drawn to his “kind, gentle” demeanor, Carey sad.

“One the reasons he enjoyed performing, not only with the theater but also with Follies and other opportunities like that, was he continued to be surrounded by the youth and the energy that’s involved in the arts,” Carey said. “ ... All the skills he had as a teacher, he would bring to the theater and to the stage.”

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Born Oct. 26, 1925, Whiteman was an officer in the U.S. Navy and served in both World War II and the Korean War, according to his obituary. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Coe College and his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Iowa. He married Joyce Ford in 1955 in Spirit Lake and the couple had two children, Lynn and Brad. Whiteman was an avid fan of the Chicago Cubs and Iowa Hawkeyes and enjoyed playing bridge, tennis and softball, his obituary states.

Whiteman was the first and longest-serving principal of Taft Junior High, now Taft Middle School, at 5200 E Ave. NW. He was there when the school opened in 1965 and retired after 25 years at the helm.

His leadership can still be felt at the school, where about a dozen staff members are former students from Whiteman’s time as principal, said Gary Hatfield, the school’s current principal.

“We call ourselves the ‘Taft family,’ and I really believe that started with his leadership with this concept that Taft, the staff and students, are one big family,” said Steven Koepke, a former Taft student who now teaches science at the school. “I know for a fact that started with Eugene’s leadership.”

Whiteman brought his passion for the arts to school, as well. The school awarded the first “EC Whiteman Excellence in Music Awards” in 1991 to honor Whiteman’s service to the school.

In 1992, that award went to Jill Anderson, who now teaches science at Taft. As a student, she remembers Whiteman as an energetic and compassionate principal.

“He saw the importance of kids having not just well-balanced grades and academics, he wanted to make sure kids excelled in other areas,” Anderson said. “And sports were important, too, but he was a very big advocate for the arts.”

Koepke, who attended Taft from 1986 to 1987, remembers Whiteman’s “stage presence in the hallways at schools.”

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“He was just a guy who always knew he was on,” Koepke said. “ ... He was the same everyday. That man had a smile on his face every single day.”

Whiteman continued to volunteer at Taft for decades after his retirement, returning often to judge geography and spelling bees.

“He’ll be sorely missed,” Koepke said. “He believed in giving back.

“They don’t make them like that anymore.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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