The Good Sport

Herb WhitmoreHerb Whitmore didn’t set out to break barriers. His goal was never to create history.

His motivation, instead, was simply to get by and survive in a culture that challenged him. He wanted to succeed despite the long odds created by a campus that wasn’t wholly welcoming of him. And in achieving that success, Whitmore became a landmark in Minnesota State Mankato athletics history with a story that speaks to why college athletics exist.

Born in 1933 in Tulsa, Okla., Whitmore’s winding path took its first turn when his family re-located to Saint Paul when he was six. His family was poor, and he worked part-time while attending high school. That meant that extracurricular activities were not an option, until an unexpected opportunity during his senior year.

“I was able to play basketball my senior year,” Whitmore says. “I was able to start my senior year, because I had been playing a lot of YMCA ball. It’s very unlikely to come out your senior year and have a chance to make the varsity team, but I was fortunate.”

With his diploma in hand, Whitmore made his next decision based mostly on what he didn’t want to do.

“After I graduated from high school, the Korean War was going on,” Whitmore says. “Back then, you either went to war or you went to school, and I didn’t want to go to war.” So he and a few friends from Saint Paul went to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.—an all-black college.

He had visions of playing basketball there but found out quickly that, since segregation had created few places for young African-Americans to play, the talent pool in places like Lincoln University was quite deep. “I went down there and got cut, and I didn’t even feel bad about it,” Whitmore says. “Because those kids from St. Louis and Kansas City…those kids were good. I’m talking about good.”

After a year at Lincoln, his wallet empty, Whitmore returned to Minnesota and started working to save money so that he could return to college. In December, he took a seasonal job as a mail carrier, which allowed him to return to Lincoln and avoid military service. But after another year struggling with both academics and funding at Lincoln, Whitmore returned again to Minnesota.

That was 1954—when everything changed. Brown v. The Board of Education made school segregation illegal that May. In December, Whitmore took a friend’s advice and enrolled at what was then known as Mankato State Teachers College, becoming the first African-American player in the history of the institution’s basketball program.

Of course, being among the first African-Americans to attend a college during a tumultuous time led to a long list of challenges for Whitmore. That list required every bit of determination and every ounce of patience that he could muster.

“You have to understand, some of the students on campus had come from a small town and had never seen a black person before,” Whitmore says. “They only knew what they may have heard or been taught about black people. I had white friends, and that could cause some friction between those different groups sometimes. I had some very good friends who had to go through some tough things because they had befriended me.”

Herb Whitmore (right) having fun with football coach Bob OttoAs challenging as it was socially, succeeding academically was perhaps an even more enormous task. Through all of the challenges, Whitmore, who played tennis and basketball, had college athletics pushing him forward and pulling him back.

“It was a tough environment, and I really didn’t have very good study skills. I was on academic probation twice, and they told me to go home,” he says. “I came back. I came back twice. Those two sports made me not give up on my education.”

Graduating from Minnesota State Mankato in 1960 with a physical education degree was only the beginning for Whitmore. He went on to get his masters’ degree at Michigan State and became a teacher. He coached tennis, football, basketball and track as well, giving students the type of outlet that played such a pivotal role in his own past. He retired in 1992 and joined the Peace Corps in 1996. Today, at almost 80, he volunteers twice a week teaching special needs students. Last year, he was named Volunteer of the Year by Disability Services in Flint, Mich.

“I got a great education in Mankato,” Whitmore says. “The challenges of the time taught me that sometimes, if you’re at a disadvantage, if you tie, you lose. That’s helped me a great deal as a teacher, to this day.”