Sumner H. Whitten '40
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They tell us that Holly has passed on. Don’t believe it! My memories of Holly and those of his classmates of 1940 are too strong. He will stay alive in our memories and those of his lovely and devoted wife, Betsy; two daughters, Joyce and Nancy; five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
Here’s a memory for you. It was freshman year. Holly and I lived in South, South Dormitory. My room was on the first floor and Holly’s was four floors directly above. We had been arguing about some campus issue of absolutely no importance and became angry with each other. He stomped up the stairs, and I stormed into my room. A few minutes later, someone told me that Holly wanted to tell me something out of his window. I leaned over the sill and looked up to Holly’s room only to get a pail of water in my face. I roared out of my room and started up the stairs to attack and destroy the beast. Mind you, I was just a strapping 155 pounder, and four floors above was a 195 lb. heavyweight wrestler, first team freshman football player—a giant of his time. All the rooms had emptied, and the stairs were blocked. I looked up the stairwell, and he looked down. It was clearly a comic situation. We both broke out laughing. The stairs were cleared, and we rushed to hug each other. By the end of the evening, after a few more beers, we pledged undying love for each other. That love and respect remained constant over the years. And that was the last time any one of his classmates saw him angry again.
Which reminds me of an anecdote from Bill Cordner, perhaps Amherst’s finest all-around athlete and captain of the 1940 football team senior year. He told me of a huddle conversation during the Williams game. “Holly,” he said, “get mad, damn it! Get mad! This is the Williams game!” Well, he did and was a key player in our victory.
During Holly’s years at Amherst, he was an outstanding athlete, lettering in football, wrestling, field and track. Beyond these talents, he was a leader, inspiring his teammates to do better than their best which made for so many thrilling victories during his four years.
Betsy sent me a copy of his memoriam. Here is a paragraph which briefly sums up his career and calling after graduation.
In 1940, Sumner enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and completed US Naval Aviator School in 1941. In 1942, he was deployed from Pearl Harbor in Hawaii for operations in the Pacific Theater. As a second lieutenant, he flew the SB2U-3 Vindicator Dive Bomber in the battles of Midway, Guadalcanal, and the Solomon Islands where he was awarded the US Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism by Admiral Chester Nimitz. He served with distinction until he retired in 1954 at the rank of lieutenant colonel. After his career in the US Marine Corps, he spent many years as a flight test engineer and an aerospace engineer with Convair, Northrop, and Lockheed Corporations. When Sumner retired, he became a deacon in the St. Peter Anglican Church. He was active as a docent at the Placer County Museum Department, was a chaplain of the US Marine Corps League of Auburn, and spent eleven years volunteering with the Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital Guild.
Another closing anecdote that illustrates his refreshing modesty. Not too long ago, Betsy was rummaging through a drawer filled with WWII medals when, to her great surprise, she found the US Navy Cross. As we all know, this is the US Navy’s highest honor and second only to the nation’s Congressional Medal of Honor. When she asked her husband of twenty-one years why he had never mentioned this distinguished award, his answer was sort of an “aw shucks.” He replied, “Honey, it’s just a piece of metal.”
God bless you, Holly. You reached for the stars in life, and you caught them.
—Tom Shepard ’40