Bill Whatley, one of the biggest little men in aviation, recently passed on (as we say down South) at 81. Bill operated Huntsville Aviation Corporation (HAC) in Alabama for decades. In his later years he served on the board (including a stint as chairman) of the airport authority. But that doesn’t begin to tell his story.
Bill was said to be the oldest active survivor of spina bifida in the U.S. At his birth, doctors didn’t expect him to live. A tough little fellow, Bill fooled those doctors for 81 years. He was my boss for many of those years.
I first met Bill in 1972, when I was with the company that insured HAC. He walked with a cane back then, but during the decades the cane evolved into an electric scooter and a customized van. (When he got the scooter, one of the HAC mechanics declared that somebody needed to “put a bell on that scooter, so we can tell when he’s coming”).
Bill always said he grew up on a farm “so poor it took four acres to get a nail rusty.” His parents must have been wonderful because Bill and his siblings all grew up to be hardworking and successful citizens.
The world is full of pilots who will tell you that “Bill Whatley gave me my first job in aviation.” Many of them attended his memorial service.
Bill worked with so many charity and service groups that I can’t remember all of them. He received the highest award the Boy Scouts give to an adult, was a Rotary president, and was on the board and often chairman for many groups that helped the handicapped.
In 1973, Bill was one of eight community leaders who personally — repeat, personally — guaranteed a bank loan of some $38,000 to fund the formation of Phoenix, a nonprofit corporation to help the handicapped. Today, Phoenix has an annual income of over $30 million and employs over 450 people (that will be closer to 500 by the time you read this). The company is a manufacturer, holds service contracts, provides vocational training, and employs more handicapped workers than any other employer in Alabama. Phoenix president and CEO Bryan Dodson, speaking at the memorial service, described Bill as “one of the most influential people in my life.”
I could write another column about Bill’s wonderful marriage with his wife Betty, who was without a doubt his best friend and most important person in his life. Typically, they met when both were working for a state group to help the handicapped.
The Little Giant is survived by many, many people who benefited greatly from his life and works. He will be missed.
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