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John R. Whitman

Died: July 2, 2015

John Russell Whitman died on July 2, 2015, in Morristown, NJ, at age 71. The cause was a catastrophic brain injury he suffered in a fall on June 19.

He was born on June 8, 1944 and raised in New York City though he spent much of his childhood in Watch Hill, RI. He was the grandson of former New York governor, Charles Whitman Sr., and the son of New York City judge, Charles Whitman, Jr. He attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH and graduated from Yale in 1966. He then volunteered and served as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, and was awarded two bronze stars, one with a V for valor. After military service, he earned his M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School graduating in 1971.

John was a founder, president, and managing partner of Sycamore Ventures, an international venture capital firm. He began his banking career with Citicorp in 1972, eventually leading the bank’s Corporate Finance Department in London. From 1987 to 1990, he served as chairman and chief executive of Prudential-Bache Interfunding Inc.

John was deeply involved in philanthropic and civic activities. He was co-chairman of the 1995 New Jersey Host Committee for the World Cup Soccer USA. He served on many boards including the New Jersey Cancer Institute and the Liberty Science Center, and he spearheaded the fundraising efforts to rebuild the New Jersey Statehouse Capital Dome. And true to his patriotic core, he was instrumental in raising the necessary funds to complete the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.

John loved sailing, golf, tennis, mountain biking, ice hockey, and especially dancing. An avid outdoorsman, he spent most vacations with friends and family seeing the world, honoring veterans, and enjoying a glass of wine. He was married for 41 years to the former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, who served from 1994 until 2001. He knew his future wife socially before their first date at President Richard M. Nixon’s inaugural ball in 1973; they were married the next year. He maintained that rumors of his impact on policy while she was governor were greatly exaggerated. In 1997 he said, “I try to convince my wife to follow her own views on any particular subject because I think she has better judgment than anybody. The people of New Jersey didn’t elect me to anything.”

Christie Whitman remembers:

John would have been embarrassed by the outpouring of love and affection that came our family’s way after his passing. He touched so many lives in so many different ways. For me, for our children, Kate and Taylor, their spouses and our six wonderful grandsons, he was our rock. He was the center around which we all congregated and not just because of his wine collection!

He laughed at his own jokes, but they were mostly pretty good. There wasn’t a piece of classical music he couldn’t identify, he knew his history and could (and did) fix everything. He was one of the only people I know who could look at architectural plans and envision the final project. His dancing was legendary, and I will never have a better partner. I was always in awe of his many gifts.

We didn’t have enough time together, he promised at least fifty years. We had many more trips to take and places to see. We were actually closing in on that “retiring in three years” promise. He put up with all the vagaries of our life and always had my back.

Life will go on, it always does, but without the same joy. One of his grandsons said it best when told John was with God — “But I want him here,” he said, pointing to the seat next to him.

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Jesse Lovejoy remembers:

A man of great integrity, intelligence and humor and a steadfast friend who never lacked a cheerful word and was always ready to lend a hand. I miss him greatly.

Gregory Weiss remembers:

I didn’t know John that well at Yale. He and I played on the rugby team together, but otherwise our paths didn’t cross. It was when a small group of classmates started a breakfast group in NYC twenty or so years ago that I really got to know John. He was such an intelligent, well-informed guy. I will always remember him as the one who, many years ago, first alerted me to the then coming economic emergence of China: “Their GNP is going to grow at 10 percent per year.” He was totally devoted to his wife Christie and, along with her, had a highly sophisticated understanding of politics. It was always fascinating to hear John’s take on the latest development in the political world. I recently found myself thinking how much I would have loved to hear John’s analysis of the Donald Trump phenomenon. His passing is a real loss to our breakfast group and the class as a whole.

Cary Koplin remembers:

When I got the message from Christie about John’s “bad fall…two surgeries…but things don’t seem to be going in a good direction,” it began a surreal time for his friends and, of course, his family. Our breakfast group had met the prior week and I’d talked with John the day before his accident. Ten days later, he was gone; and then six hundred gathered at the small family church to say goodbye and celebrate this genuinely good man.

The eulogies recounted John’s achievements in business, his commitment to the community, but most importantly, his devotion to Christie and their family. Christie and John were a team; and though John would often say he was trained to walk three paces behind Christie and just keep quiet, he was far from just her “plus one.” John was a thoughtful listener, and his intellect and prescience were powerful. An example of why John’s counsel was so valued is presented below. I have reproduced, verbatim, his submission to our 45th Reunion Class Book.

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John R. Whitman’s 45th Reunion Essay

I believe that the members of the Class of 1966 will, in aggregate, see more change in their personal, professional and global lives in the next five years than they have experienced in the past four decades.

I have been married to a beautiful, smart, loving and successful wife for 37 years. We have two attractive children who have exceptional spouses of their own and three grandchildren. Ours is a classic 20th Century American family, but it is going to change. Since it is impossible to know what those changes might be, it probably isn’t worth worrying about them much.

However, I believe we better do something about our country and our World. There are many issues to discuss but for this brief essay I would like to mention two.

The Americans, who rescued Europe and the World twice in 30 years, came home with the American Dream which simply stated said: If you work hard, you can succeed at just about anything you want to do. This dream lasted until the 1990s when a number of politicians discovered that they could get and stay elected if they promised to provide an unsustainable standard of living even if they never delivered it. An important corollary to this was that all Americans “deserved” this standard of living whether they worked for it or not. Unless we reestablish the original American Dream in the hearts and minds of our people, our children will see a continuing erosion in their prospects for success.

America’s dependence on foreign oil erodes its moral standing in the world and pours billions of dollars into the coffers of terrorists. Until we become energy self-sufficient, we will be forced to follow an inconsistent foreign policy that not only makes a mockery of our fundamental ethical strength but emboldens our enemies and enriches our competitors.

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I also remember John for his generosity of spirit, his invitations to Drumthwacket for several Yale football games against Princeton, his being (with Christie) the breeder who gave our country its famous First Scottie, Barney of the Bush White House, a Commandeur de Bordeaux, a Pilgrim, and just being a loyal friend.

John Whitman was, through and through, a patriot and a devoted American. From 1967 to 1972, he served his country with honor as a First Lieutenant in the United States Army stationed in Vietnam and then in the reserves. John always identified his birthday as “D-Day plus two” and, as a lasting memorial, Christie and the family have established the John R. Whitman Normandy Scholars Fund at the World War II Museum in New Orleans. This perpetual endowment, supported by many of John’s classmates and friends, will educate deserving students, with a preference to New Jersey residents, about World War II and send them to Normandy to study and return to their communities to share the lessons of the Normandy campaign.

John, like so many of our classmates, left us far too soon, and I feel so fortunate to have had him in my life.