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Eagle Lake, TX 77434
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The Artists’Artisan
John W. Whitley (1887-1981)

Eagle Lake Headlight

Sandra C. Thomas

March 10, 2012

If you’ve ever visited the state Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion, the Driskill or Commodore Perry Hotels in Austin, you have walked in the light of Eagle Lake’s John W. Whitley. You may have seen his handiwork on the walls and ceilings of these and many other buildings and rotundas, through his restorations of much of the artwork and gold leafing done all around Austin, and in several other states. If you’ve traveled to Europe you could have seen his work in France, Germany, England, Italy and the Czech Republic. He was a good friend of Texas writer and humorist, J. Frank Dobie. John did art restorations for Dobie’s extensive art collection, much of which hangs in a special room at the University of Texas. Eagle Lake’s John W. Whitley was a master of his trade. His story is as fascinating as his work.

A young boy, born in 1887, in Eagle Lake may never have dreamed of a formal education, much less to have Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver as his mentors. Young John W. Whitley was raised in the homes of Rev. Daniel Whitley, organizer of the Greater Mount Olive Baptist Church, in 1886, and Cicero Howard, community leader and county commissioner, who worked on the farm of Captain William Dunovant, founder of Lakeside Sugar Refinery. John was raised by his grandmother, and his aunt, Cornelia Whitley, wife of Cicero Howard, and lived near town on a farm.

John recognized early that his talents were his gifts, and that he could invent and do most anything. Some believed he should become a doctor. But he knew that his skills were mechanical, creative, and inventive. He invented very young, and built a mechanical gate and professional kites. His “auntie” saw early that John would not likely become a farmer, and told him one day that “he should get some mechanical training,” a daunting prospect for young John, knowing he would have to leave home, and all that was familiar.

By walking, and riding when he could, John made his way to Alabama, to attend the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, later to become the home of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, and an important institution for the education of African American students and leaders. At 18, with little money, John arrived to Tuskegee, and entered the task of working by day to support himself, attending classes at the Institute at night.

His fellow students saw John’s promise and gave him the name of “Deep Whit,” as he always seemed to understand things that others couldn’t. It’s not surprising then, that John was in frequent contact on the campus with legendary Drs. George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. “They were my mentors,” said John. “Dr. Carver knew more about peanuts than any man I ever knew, and Dr. Booker T. went out a lot to raise money for the school.”

After four years, John had learned everything one could know about machines. He could duplicate parts, and do just about anything possible with a machine. In 1915, John moved to Austin and set up his own carpentry business, using machines to assist with the skilled work. As he began his profession, he remembered the words of his friend, Booker T. Washington, “Let down your bucket where you are,” a thought which made a difference in John’s future.

John worked with the Dewey Bradford Paint Company in Austin for a time, learning even more skills in business, painting, carpentry and restoration. Later, John started his own art repair shop, restoring paintings, pottery, and frames, in a space behind his home. He called it the “Ten Talent Shop,” from the biblical parable of the servant with ten talents, from whom more was expected because of his many gifts.

Remembering the parable, John took it to heart, and set up a shop school to teach boys from Huston-Tillotson College mechanical training, as he had learned it from Tuskegee, and his own experience. John had all the equipment in his shop that the college didn’t have, such as lathes, bench saws, sanders, and bench presses. From John’s experiences with his mentors, he believed that “you ought to inspire some person during your life, especially a young person” to be of service to the world.

A spiritual man, who believed that his many talents were God-given, John helped to organize the Olivet Baptist Church in Austin, and named it. He served as a deacon and was on the board for many years, and later became a minister himself.

John W. Whitley’s talents touched countless people and works of art in his ninety-four years. He made the world a better place carrying on the imperatives of Drs. Carver and Washington, and those of his church, family, and faith, in his Ten Talent Shop. Eagle Lake is proud of its native son.

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