Donnie Whittington died Feb. 15, but his legacy lives on through the many lives he has touched during his 55 years working at the Boys & Girls Club of Cabarrus County.
Whittington, who retired as the club's athletic director in 2009, began his 65-year relationship with the club in 1946, when he became a member at age 5. According to Valerie Melton, the club's executive director, Whittington started working part time for the club when he was 14, in 1955.
By 1961, Whittington, then 20, began coaching 6-, 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds in the club's much-respected youth football program. E.Z. Smith III, retired head football coach for Concord High School, said he was one of the 35 boys on Whittington's first official football team.
Smith, a 58-year-old Concord resident, said of Whittington's death, "I've lost one of my heroes."
At age 6, Smith said, he weighed more than 100 pounds. But unlike other adults and children, Whittington never belittled him or made him feel incapable of succeeding because of his size.
"It was never about race, color or creed with Donnie," he said. "He treated everyone with respect."
Smith went on to play football for Concord Middle and Concord High School. He graduated in 1972 with a football scholarship to play for the University of South Carolina. All along, Whittington came to every middle and high school game Smith played in. He even attended some of his games at USC-Columbia.
Whittington did that for all his old players, Smith said: "He was a big part of everyone's life."
When Smith was named head coach of the Concord Spiders in 1980, Whittington was one of the first people to call and congratulate him. He credits Whittington with teaching him the intrinsic values of coaching: sportsmanship, leadership and playing hard.
"The impact was not just athletics, though," Smith said. "It was lifelong values."
Joe Habina, director of operations at the club, said he worked with Whittington for 10 years, 1999-2009. His fondest memories of Whittington are of the times they would take young club members on sports-related field trips together, especially the Charlotte Knights game about four years ago when Habina caught his first professional foul ball.
"Donnie was one of my baseball buddies," Habina said. He said they would often just sit and talk about sports and the good old days, when kids played sports just because they enjoyed playing them. "I simply enjoyed his company."
As did many, Melton said.
Melton said she will miss him most on Pancake Day, the club's annual fundraiser, which is coming up on March 15. The event annually attracts about 5,000 people for pancakes, sausage and drinks. When her anxieties built on Pancake Day, Whittington always helped her remain calm. He was also an integral part of the fundraiser, she said. "It just won't be the same without him."
Melton said club leaders plan to set up a memorial display for Whittington on Pancake Day. He was also named a lifetime honorary board member, and a basketball court was named after him Feb. 13, just two days before he died.
His memorial service was Feb. 18 in the club's gym, provided by Wilkinson Funeral Home. Plaques were given to Whittington's wife, Lannie Tucker Whittington, and his daughter, Kimberly Whittington.
Whittington was 70 when he died of cancer in his home after deciding not to receive further treatments. On Feb. 11, five days before his death, he had asked E.Z. Smith to officiate his eulogy.
Smith said it was a day of celebration. "The emphasis was the impact that he had on thousands of young men and women, and the parents of those children in the community."
Melton said Whittington's legacy will also live on in his last request. "He wanted to make sure that every kid can take part in their programs through scholarships," she said. "He told me (that) when he was gone ... he didn't want a bunch of flowers; he wanted scholarships for kids to play football."
Melton said his philosophies in life - to treat everybody with respect, treat everyone equally and give everyone a chance to participate - are truly expressed in that last request.
As for Whittington's effect on kids, she said, "Before you even knew to call it 'being a mentor,' he was one."
But what's most important, both Smith and Melton agreed, is that he will always be known as "Coach."