Memories of Warren W. Whitlinger

Posted by Jenny Koltnow on June 14, 2012

Jenny Koltnow (R), Exec. Dir, Grizzlies Foundation, with Elizabeth Simpson (L) Founding Director, Grizzlies Prep Charter School

Jenny Koltnow (R), Exec. Dir, Grizzlies Foundation, with Elizabeth Simpson (L) Founding Director, Grizzlies Prep Charter School

Joe Murphy / NBAE / Getty Images

Last week, I learned of the passing of Warren W. Whitlinger. My heart sank. Tears welled in my eyes. I couldn’t believe it. As accomplished in corporate leadership training as he was developing young tennis talent, known to his grandchildren as “Baba” and to everyone else, “Grandpa Whit,” was gone.

Mr. Whit was my first mentor.

I met Mr. Whit the summer I turned nine years old. I arrived to the Smith Park tennis courts in Menasha with department-store variety tennis racquet in hand, ready to play. I was introduced to a jovial gentleman who immediately felt like a long lost relative. I recall discussing my interest in tennis, which, at that point, was still forming after a single summer of Park and Recreation Department lessons. Over the course of the next hour, he tossed a few balls, critiqued my form, evaluated my footwork, praised my attitude. He encouraged me to come back the following week.

And come back I did. Once a week, I’d ride my bike to lessons, sometimes at Doty Park, but typically at Smith Park. We’d work on forehands, backhands, volleys and the like… and have long conversations while picking up balls or when standing on the baseline practicing serves.

After several years of private lessons, I joined drill groups so I could keep playing during the Wisconsin winters. Each Wednesday night, alongside other aspiring Chrissy Everts and Johnny Macs, we’d meet in an old converted barn, hidden by 200 year-old trees and containing a single tennis court, right in the center of Neenah. During these lessons, we’d crowd around Mr. Whit, not only because he was soft-spoken and we clung to every word; the over-sized heating unit that kept “The Barn” warm rattled noisily during the hour-long lessons.

A year or two after meeting him, I recall a photo of his entire family on the cover of the Sunday paper.  Flanked by his children and grandchildren—including national tennis champions Tami and Teri Whitlinger, his granddaughters, and Stanford University Men’s Head Tennis Coach, John Whitlinger, his son, Mr. Whit was celebrating his seventieth birthday. Being just ten years old, I was pretty psyched that I knew a celebrity.

As years passed and my tennis skills improved, I had the opportunity to take “mental toughness” lessons with Mr. Whit. Generally, these were intended to be hour-long sessions to discuss tennis strategy, goal-setting and the mental skills required for winning matches. These sessions would take place in Mr. Whit’s den—a cozy, warm room in the back of his house, made magical by the hundreds of framed photos, articles, tennis art and quotes covering every inch of wall space. I couldn’t get enough of it. He displayed something for every milestone reached and award received by family, students and himself.

It was around this time that Mr. Whit had started executive leadership training with several major companies around Wisconsin. Here as a young teen, I’d listen to the same audio cassettes of Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins and Steven Covey, but as a tennis player, I’d also study video of perfect serves, model backhands, and winning overheads. We’d discuss attitude, self-talk, and confidence. I’d envision myself making a perfect winning backhand and practice holding my racquet in a way that relieved tension from my arm.

During a critical period during my teen years, Mr. Whit and I were working on a process for goal-setting. While I am sure he hoped I’d set goals for winning matches or raising my state ranking, I instead set goals for my health and education. Mr. Whit supported my plan every step of the way and praised the thought and detail I put into this exercise. It worked—I didn’t just reach these goals, I exceeded them.

Mr. Whit regularly gave me Zerox-printed sheets containing cartoons and quotes. On occasion, I’d place these on a mirror or closet door for easy reference. Most of the time, I stuffed them in a drawer. Regardless, many of these lessons found their way to my subconscious.

“The will to win is important, but the will to prepare to win is essential.”

“If it is to be, it’s up to me.”

While the intent was to make me a tougher tennis player, the result was making me a stronger, more focused and more confident individual.

Years after my “mental training” had ended, I’d graduated from graduate school and had gotten married, I went to see Mr. Whit.  By this time, he was in his late eighties. He sat me down in his Magic Den and wanted to show me something. There it was—a carbon copy of my original “goal plan” that I had written more than thirteen years earlier. He had saved it all this time… and had even used it when training tennis players and corporate leaders about goal-setting.

Because I use the word “mentor” in my job about a thousand times each day and interact with volunteer mentors, program leaders, students and teachers so regularly, I oftentimes think about who mentored me.  I think about who helped me become the person I am today. I think about the experiences that have helped shaped my interests and aspirations. 

I didn’t use the word mentor then. I didn’t even hear this word until college. But just calling them coaches, teachers, even friends never seemed to adequately depict our relationships… or what these individuals meant to me.

My mentors like Mr. Whit were authentic. They were open. They showed compassion. They offered feedback. They offered encouragement. They were eager to teach. They made me laugh. They let me cry. They believed in me when I doubted myself.

Mr. Whit died on April 30, 2012. He was 98 years old. He lived life to the fullest every single day of those 98 years.

Mr. Whit, I miss you. I am blessed beyond words to have had the opportunity to call you coach, friend and mentor. Thank you for the wisdom you shared and guidance given. I’ll remember you always.

Love, Jenny


Mr. Whit’s obituary may be found at http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/postcrescent/obituary.aspx?n=warren-whitlinger&pid=157365981

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