James Whitehead, Co-Founder of W&L's Reeves Center, Dies at 93
James Walter Whitehead Sr., co-founder and Director Emeritus of the Reeves Center at Washington and Lee University, died on Thursday, Aug. 20, in Houston. He was 93.
In addition to his work with the Reeves Center, Whitehead served W&L for 34 years, as director of university relations, assistant to the president for administration, director of development, treasurer, secretary of the Board of Trustees and chair of the American Revolution Bicentennial Committee.
“Jim Whitehead was one of W&L’s legendary figures of the late 20th century. He spent 34 years serving W&L, and not just in one position, but in several, and often at the same time,” said Kenneth P. Ruscio, president of Washington and Lee. “We owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his work with university relations, fund-raising and the Board of Trustees. Perhaps his greatest gift to us, however, is the Reeves Center, with its invaluable collection of Chinese export porcelain and beautiful paintings.”
Whitehead was born on Oct. 20, 1921, in Columbus, Georgia, to Dr. and Mrs. William Freeman Whitehead. He received a B.S. in business administration and sociology from the University of Tampa in 1942.
He served in World War II as an aviator with the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1942 to 1945. He married Celeste Dervaes — also an aviator — in 1945.
From 1945 to 1950, Whitehead was the director of public relations for the University of Tampa. From 1950 to 1955, he worked as the national finance director for the National Conference of Christians and Jews. And from 1955 to 1958, he was the executive director of the Empire State Foundation of Independent Liberal Arts Colleges.
Whitehead arrived at W&L in 1958 as the director of university relations and assistant to the president for administration. He then worked as treasurer of the university from 1966 to 1980. From 1968 to 1987, he also served as the secretary of the Board of Trustees. And from 1972 to 1976, he chaired W&L’s American Revolution Bicentennial Committee. From 1982 to 1992, he headed the Reeves Center, performing that role full time after 1987. When he retired in 1992, the university named him Director of the Reeves Center Emeritus.
In 1967, thanks largely to the Whiteheads’ friendship with Euchlin Reeves, a 1927 graduate of the W&L School of Law, and his wife, Louise Herreshoff Eaton Reeves, the Reeveses gave to W&L their important collection of Chinese export porcelain. Together the Whiteheads (aided by the president’s housekeeper and other interested parties) cleaned and cataloged every item once the collection arrived in Lexington. They then exhibited and promoted the collection; it forms the nucleus of today’s Reeves Center, which opened in 1982.
The Reeveses had kept their priceless pieces in two overflowing homes in Providence, Rhode Island. The first time Whitehead visited Euchlin Reeves, “every flat surface was covered with cups, saucers, plates, bowls, vases, pitchers, urns, auction catalogues and antique journals,” he wrote in his 2003 book, “A Fragile Union: The Story of Louise Herreshoff.” “Not only were the surfaces of furniture covered with ceramics, items were stored under the bed, on and under the piano, atop and below the chairs. The drawers of the chest, the secretary bookcase, and the desk were also overflowing with pieces of porcelain.” The next-door house boasted a similar décor.
When the movers packed up the treasures (including furniture and other items), they showed Whitehead framed artworks that were so grimy, he thought they could be useful only for their frames. Back at W&L, however, Whitehead discovered that they enclosed “beautiful, brilliant paintings,” as he said in a 1990 news release. The artist was Louise Herreshoff Eaton Reeves.
Whitehead became a champion of Herreshoff’s work, rescuing several more of her paintings from the new owners of the Reeveses’ homes. In 1976, he arranged an exhibition of her paintings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He wrote articles about Herreshoff and the Reeves porcelain, culminating in his book, “A Fragile Union,” which featured a foreword by Tom Wolfe, a 1951 graduate of Washington and Lee.
While juggling his multiple roles at W&L, Whitehead lent his talents to fund-raising. In the mid-1970s, he issued a license to Wamsutta to produce bed linens that featured designs from the porcelain collection. The pattern “Blue Porcelain Butterfly” became a bestseller and brought the university substantial royalties. He also arranged for another company to reproduce in porcelain a few pieces from the Reeves collection.
As Wolfe described Whitehead in the book’s foreword, “his clothes lay lovingly tailored upon his well-fed-and-cared-for contours. His cravats would have made England’s legendary cravateur, Beau Brummel, twitch with envy. He had a peculiarly Southern courtesy and conversational ease and a Columbus, Georgia, voice that could have charmed the Rolex off your wrist, had he entertained any such prospects. I hasten to add that he didn’t.”
“I was one of the first interns at the Reeves Center, and Mr. Whitehead became my mentor for the next 40-plus years,” said Peter Grover, a member of the W&L Class of 1973. He retired from the university this past June after 12 years as director of university collections and art history. “He never lost track of me and was always providing guidance and counsel.”
“I first met Jim Whitehead in 2003 at a luncheon in Lynchburg with his wife, Celeste. What a dynamic and genteel couple they were,” said Patricia Hobbs, associate director of university collections at W&L. “Mr. Whitehead and I talked often about the paintings of Louise Herreshoff Eaton Reeves, which he had single-handedly rescued from oblivion. He would even call me at home to chat about them. Mr. Whitehead claimed that he knew nothing about art, and yet when I began to curate the university’s art collection, I was surprised to learn that, in addition to his important work creating the Reeves Center, throughout the 1970s and ’80s he fostered the growth of our broader collections of paintings, prints and sculpture.”
“If it wasn’t for him, the Reeves Collection at Washington and Lee simply wouldn’t exist,” said Ronald Fuchs, curator of the Reeves Collection. “It was his vision that recognized that a ceramic collection could be an educational resource, and his enthusiasm and energy that made it happen.” Fuchs knew that whenever he had a question, he could call Whitehead. “He would tell me exactly what I needed to know about the object, or the donor, or why something was done the way it was done. I am going to miss that connection to the collection’s beginnings.”
Whitehead’s renowned hospitality also embraced two campus visitors, Joella and Stewart Morris, of Houston, Texas. In turn, they generously underwrote the restoration of a 19th-century home on campus that is now the guest quarters known as the Morris House. Whitehead also made possible the Marian Carson Collection of George Washington prints, the John G. Hamilton Program Fund and the Watson Pavilion, an annex of the Reeves Center that houses a Japanese tearoom.
During the nation’s bicentennial, Whitehead oversaw traveling exhibitions of W&L’s Custis-Lee collection of 18th- and early-19th-century paintings and of the Reeves Collection of Chinese export porcelain.
For his myriad contributions to W&L, Whitehead twice received the Ring-tum Phi Award from the student body, in 1975 and 1979, and, with his wife, the Lynchburg Citation in 1976, the highest honor an alumni chapter may confer. The Lynchburg Citation read, in part: “His devotion to Washington and Lee is as strong and as carefully thought out as that of our most ardent real alumnus.”
He belonged to Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership honor society founded at W&L, and received an honorary LL.D. from the University of Tampa, his alma mater, in 1954.
Two funds at the university honor the Whiteheads’ contributions. In 1991, the Gulf States Paper Corp. established the James W. and Celeste Whitehead Fund to care for the William Winstanley painting of George Washington, which was a gift from Jonathan W. (Jack) Warner ’40, CEO of Gulf States Paper Corp. And in 1992, an anonymous donor created the James W. Whitehead Reeves Center Endowment to honor Whitehead’s W&L career.
Whitehead served his community as well, with stints as the chair of the advisory board of the First National Exchange Bank of Lexington and the president of the Rockbridge Chapter of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He also sat on the boards of the Stonewall Jackson Hospital and the Rockbridge Concert Guild.
Whitehead’s professional service included terms on the board of governors and as secretary for the Decorative Arts Trust, on the board of directors of the American Ceramics Circle, as president for the South of the Scotch-Irish Society of America, and on the advisory board of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union. He belonged to Beta Gamma Sigma commerce fraternity.
His wife, Celeste Dervaes Whitehead, his partner in his W&L career, died in 2010. He is survived by two sons, James Walter Whitehead Jr., a member of W&L’s Class of 1968, and Paul Dervaes Whitehead; two grandchildren, James Walter Whitehead III and Carson Key Whitehead; and two great-grandchildren, Claire Dervaes Whitehead and Graham Horn Whitehead. A granddaughter-in-law, Elizabeth Munson Whitehead, is a member of the W&L Class of 1999.
The family requests that memorial contributions go to the James W. and Celeste Whitehead Fund or the James W. Whitehead Reeves Center Endowment, both at W&L.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Sept. 26, at 2 p.m. in Lee Chapel on the W&L campus. A reception will follow immediately afterward at the Reeves Center and the Hotchkiss Alumni House, both also on the campus.