Rodney Whitaker: Master Sgt. Meets Masters Degree
Rodney Whitaker speaks on career and modern parenthood
Rodney Whitaker is an ROTC instructor at Elkins High School in Missouri City, TX. Well, actually he is a host of things including a husband, a father, a retired Master Sergeant from the Air Force, a recipient of B.S. in Business Management, a recipient of a Masters degree in Business Administration, a personal friend and relative, and a pretty damn good pool player. "Whit" is a person of old school integrity. If you know him personally, you know that he is not getting undue praise here. I'm honored to profile the hard work and focus Whit has displayed since day one. His accomplishments and influence speak for themselves but allow me to chronicle some of them in our interview.
What's your background? I was born in Memphis, TN and reared in Marion, AR. We lived in the suburbs, for lack of a better word, called Sunset, AR. Nothing but Black folks living in Sunset. I come from a big family of 11 kids and I am 9th in line. What branch of the military do you come from? The Air Force. For 20 years. I was 23 when I joined the AF and I'll tell ya when I talk about the Air Force I talk about circumstances. I went to the AF because of work circumstances in my life. I was working and everything but my job advised me that I had gone as high as I would be able to go. That wasn't good enough for me so I needed to do something else. I relay that to young people when I'm talking to them. It wasn't something that I wanted to do when I was in high school. But then the circumstances in my life changed. My father passed away. They were trying to, but they couldn't really afford to send me to college. After my father passed my mom was still trying but that didn't make any sense to be accepting that money when they were struggling at home. So I went into the Air Force. I don't regret it one bit. Loved it. Were you in ROTC in high school? No there was no ROTC in my school coming up. I had never heard of it. When I took the ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery) test at school I was drawing on the paper. I wasn't TRYING to pass it. I had no intention of going into the military. None. And it's been the greatest thing that ever happened to me.
Were you stationed all over the world? Actually no. I was stationed exactly where I wanted to be to do the job that I wanted to do. My first tour, I was involuntarily sent California. I was stationed in Sacramento. I thought I was in heaven. I loved Sacramento but in order to be a drill sergeant, which is what I wanted to do, I had to be stationed in San Antonio, TX. In order to teach at the police academy I had to be stationed in San Antonio. I spent 7 years in San Antonio. Then I wanted to be recruiter and that sent me back home to Arkansas for four years. From there I came back to Texas. So 7 years in San Antonio and 4 years in Sacramento then four years in Arkansas. What was your rank when you eventuallly retired? I was an E7 Master Saergent when I retired, with full benefits and honorable discharge. And you went on to school since you retired? Yes, the Air Force paid for my schooling for a Bachelors degree and a Masters degree. Just a wonderful experience and retirement. What would you say are some of the highlights of your military career? Wow. I guess, going to Desert Storm (the first one) was a highlight.
What was your role during Desert Storm? I was a cop. We were in charge of securing Tent City. Tent City was where all the personnel lived. I was stationed there for 8 months. Any favorite memories?
Being a drill sergeant and seeing cadets go from nothing, not knowing why they were even IN basic training, to 6 weeks later, standing up straight, talking with confidence and thinking "I did that"; I enjoyed that. I enjoyed having an impact on young people. That's really what lead me to what I'm doing now in retirement, teaching ROTC and working with young people. It wasn't about the yelling and tearing them down, which we did, but it was about building them back up that just meant it all to me. And they called it work. To have that effect on people, a positive effect, meant the world.
Now, some say that the armed service is no place for a Black man. They say you can't excel or prosper in the military. Did you ever feel like you had any undue or additional hurdles to get by being a Black soldier?
I'd like to say it was transparent. But my experience and promotions also goes to I was a hard charger. I wanted to be the best at what I did. So I put every effort into being the best at what I was doing no matter if I had to be better than the Black person or the White person. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to be Airman of The Year, I wanted to be Jr. NCO of The Year, I wanted to be Sr. NCO Of The Year and I got all three of those awards. Like I tell my kids, set your expectations high. I wanted that. I can't say I faced any hardships because I was Black.
Ok, shifting gears for a bit. Let's talk about family. You're married with two daughters and a son, right?
Yes. My son grew up with his mom in Marion, AR and lives there now with his own family. He's 27 years old now. My two daughters, Dominique and Alexis, live with me and my wife, Kim. Kim and I have been married for 22 years now.
So raising two girls has to be a unique perspective for a father. I mean grown men know how young me think. LOL. And daughters tend to subconsciously choose relationships that emulate their parents' relationship. That said, what do you and your wife do in terms of setting examples for your kids?
Well, one thing is that we never yell in front of the kids. We try to reserve discussing disagreements for when we can talk alone. Also, I try to make sure my girls see their dad showing affection to their mom. We hug, we kiss.. so that they know this is how it should be. I don't curse in front of my kids. I don't know if my kids have EVER heard me curse. That's just not something that I do in front of the kids and I was formerly a drill sergeant. I don't do it in front of my girls. I do that because when they meet a guy I want them to have expectations as to what the guy should be like. Like "if you can't meet up to my dad's standards then I don't need to be with you". That's one of the biggest things I try to establish for the girls.
As for my son, he didn't live with me but I wanted him to understand what it was like to be a man. He was raised by his mom, his aunts, his grandmother, and finally I think he has a concept of what it is to be a man. I think he suffers now because of that.
Another thing is that we eat every meal together. We sit down at the table as a family and eat dinner. When my daughters' friends come over they are blown away to see that we sit down to eat together. They ask us "what's the special occasion?". But that's just how we do it.
What's your relationship with your son?
We talk. I'll call him. Every now and then he gets around to calling me. I let him know that I'm still here for him. He's 27, got three kids of his own now; married. We talk about things and I let him know that I'll never say "I told you so" though he acknowledges there are times now that he wishes he had listened to me in the past. And if I can help him with something I'm there for him. We've had our times together discussing dealing with the police, birth control, and protecting himself in both scenarios. Overall though I would say that our relationship is starting to bloom into something great.
What about race? What conversations have you had with your kids about it? And I don't mean the old school "it's hard for a Black man these days" kind of thing. But how to deal with the diversity of their circle of friends. Do you advise them on that or just stay out of it and let them experience what they will?
I try to stay out of it and let them make their own choices regarding their friends. They've got friends from all races and I don't think they are as aware of their differences as previous generations. The biggest thing I tell them in dealing with people in general is that you can't tell someone to respect you, you have to MAKE them respect you by the way you carry yourself. If you're doing the things you're supposed to do, handling your business in school, carrying yourself like a young lady or a young man, people will respect you. They have no choice. You could be the Valedictorian in your school but if you carry yourself in a negative way, that's what people see. Their perception of you is molded from that. And with races, you've got ignorant Black folks, you've got ignorant White folks.. everybody's got an ignorant segment.
I personally prefer the mixed culture they are growing up in. We purposely moved to where we live because we didn't want to live in a neighborhood that was predominantly one race. We wanted the racial diversity that exists where we live. A melting pot, for lack of a better term, so that they'd experience some of everyone. Otherwise, what do they learn? I wanted them to learn about people and not just a specific race, including Black.
In light of what's going on in the media with Mike Brown, Treyvon Martin and a host of others, have you had any conversations with your kids about what they hear in the news? First off I tell the girls, stay out of the legal system. It's not fair. And being on the right side of a case don't necessarily mean things will turn out right for you. We talk about the fact that people don't need a reason to get crazy, they just do it sometimes. I look at the killings of Treyvon and Mike Brown and I tell them there's no guarantee against violence. But you've got to put yourself in the position to avoid it as best you can. I tell 'em "trust your gut". If it feels wrong it probably IS wrong. Don't worry about being called a coward or whatever the term is today, if you have a bad feeling about something, walk away. Try not to put yourself in that situation. I know that they're young and want to get out and do some of the things that their friends are getting into but nothing great is going on after a certain time of night. After midnight, one, two in the morning, you can find some trouble to get into or some trouble can find you. You can get dead. I'm a matinee guy. I know that's not a teenager's thing but think about what you're doing and where you're going. Watch the news. Just the first five minutes may have you rethink some of your plans for that Friday night, that Saturday night, prom night or graduation night. No one plans to get into trouble but it may turn out that someone won't make it home that night.
As a teacher have you fostered some of those same type of mentoring relationships with your students? On a different level, but yes. As a teacher, students look to you for maintaining or becoming a source of structure in their lives. A lot of them appreciate being kept on the right path in school and in life. They may not really acknowledge it as such at their age but they respond to a strict but fair approach. They know my objective is to see them do well. And not just in my class. You're an ROTC instructor, right? Yes. I've been teaching ROTC at Elkins High School for 6 and a half years. Was that a good place to land after your experience in the Air Force? Yes. Again, I get great reward from having a positive impact on young people. This was a natural transition for me. And being a positive influence on my kids, is fun. I really enjoy it. For instance, to have a kid tell their Theater teacher in their "Influential People" assignment that I'm one of their role models makes me feel pretty good. The Theater teacher approached me and the woman almost had me in tears. The girl wrote "I don't have a relationship with my father. I don't really know my father but I have the Sergeant". I was like.. Whoa! I had to walk away from her. That was more than I could stand at the moment. She said "I have the Sergeant".
And this is a perfect example of why Rod is profiled here. Positive. Black. Influence.
Rise. Shine. Repeat.