Teacher says reluctant goodbye after 41 years
By TOM CAMPBELL
For a guy who never planned on being a teacher, Mike Whitehouse's career turned out just fine.
Even if Whitehouse, BS '72, isn't so sure.
"I don't know if I was a successful teacher, or if I just lasted a really long time," said Whitehouse, who has completed a 41-year career teaching agriculture at Lewis Cass High School in Walton, Ind.
Photo by Tom Campbell
Why is Mike Whitehouse smiling? Well, it's his nature. But it just might be because he's thinking of the warm Florida waters where he will spend a portion of his retirement days.
The white-haired and matching mustached Whitehouse taught three welding courses, small-engine repair, building construction and ag power at the school of about 500 students (top four grades) 40 miles northeast of the Purdue campus.
"He is the face of the Lewis Cass FFA program," said Mike Appleton, a fellow ag instructor and FFA adviser for the last 16 years.
"My wife claims I spend more time with Mike than with her," Appleton said. "Our FFA program has been here for 50 years, and Mike Whitehouse has been a big part of it for 40 years."
Actually, it's 41 years, if you include his student teaching assignment, which led seamlessly into a full-time position at Lewis Cass.
"The teacher I taught under quit to go sell insurance, so they hired me in the middle of the school year in 1973," Whitehouse said.
"I never intended to be an ag teacher. I was going to work for John Deere or International and be a field technician, working somewhere between the engineers and the people who built the tractors. I figured they would need someone who could test the tractors and evaluate them and go back to the engineers and give them some feedback."
Having grown up on a 600-acre farm in Howard County (Ind.), Whitehouse figured he was the right man for the job.
"I figured driving tractors and combines most of my life made me better qualified to work them and understand them than most of the people who build them," said Whitehouse.
But as he neared his graduation date at Purdue, he found that large manufacturing companies weren't hiring people with his skills.
The idea of becoming a teacher can be credited to a local veterinarian, William Means.
During a visit to the farm in 1971, Means suggested that Whitehouse get a teaching license.
That made sense, even if teaching didn't.
"I never thought much of becoming a teacher," Whitehouse said. "In fact, when we did those aptitude tests in high school, I think teaching was one of the lowest things I had any aptitude for."
"I got there and saw this shop with all of those wonderful tools. I figured I could spend my days teaching kids how to work on stuff and how to make things work," Whitehouse said. "I thought this was an ideal job."
At least for a little while.
"I thought I would teach for five to six years, build up the family farming operation (near Russiaville in Howard County), then go back to farming full time."
Photo by Tom Campbell
During his 41-year career at Lewis Cass High School, Whitehouse also taught the parents of some his most recent crop of students.
Since graduation, he had been using his teaching money to buy half of the equipment on the family farm, preparing for the day when he would quit being a teacher and switch from part-time to full-time farming.
But that day never came.
"After teaching all day, I would go home to the farm and work all night. And farm work wasn't paying too well," Whitehouse said. "The school kept paying me to teach during the day — probably more than I was worth — and I thought this lifestyle was crazy. There had to be more to life than working 20-hour days."
So in 1989, Whitehouse sold his farm equipment and became a full-time teacher.
Now it's hard to find anybody associated with Lewis Cass High School who thinks Whitehouse made a poor choice.
"He's been an outstanding teacher," said Principal Mark Karmel. "We hate to lose great teachers and the students hate to lose great teachers. The idea of him not being here anymore, working with the kids, saddens me."
Making the decision to retire was not an easy one.
But when people asked Whitehouse why he didn't retire earlier, he always had the same answer.
"Why would I? I had a job I really enjoyed. Most days, you feel like you are accomplishing something and doing some good for the kids. It's never come to where I dreaded getting up in the morning and coming to work. If you are at school and helping kids and they are asking you questions and you are helping them solve their problems, it gives you a good feeling. It gives you a feeling of worth."