U.S. Senator (D-W.Va.)
When I came to Washington, D.C. as U.S. Senator a year ago I vowed that I would use every opportunity to brag on West Virginia and its people. I am so proud to serve West Virginians, and I want this country and the world to know how special we are. So, when I learned of the untimely passing of Mike Whitt - a dear friend and a devoted West Virginian - I knew that I had to speak about this extraordinary, yet humble man.
I have known Mike Whitt for years. We served as colleagues in the West Virginia Legislature, and it was there that I learned of his passion for Mingo County and for West Virginia. It was clear that Mike was a man of rare vision and energy. He was a true leader. I also worked closely with him as governor because he was the high water mark in our state for economic development. In addition to his duties with the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, he gave generously of his time in advising and guiding communities and community leaders from around the state in economic development endeavors.
Mike was a special leader because he led by example. He embodied his personal and spiritual values in his professional and personal lives with a quiet grace and assurance that caused him to stand out even as he modestly sought to stay one step away from the spotlight. It is this quality that I saw over and over again through the years as Mike added successful venture after successful venture to his list of accomplishments. These reflections are personal to me and part of what I will always cherish when I think about my friendship with Mike. What I brag about here in Washington and around the country to anyone who will listen is how Mike created a template for public-private partnerships that is unmatched anywhere in this country, in my experience.
Mike Whitt was a visionary. He not only saw the big picture - he drew it and then colored it in with remarkable detail. Then, harnessing his extraordinary determination and organization, Mike built the relationships and partnerships that could make this vision a reality. He brought together private companies, public agencies, local officials, community leaders, and elected representatives and patiently explained how all of these groups would work together to complete these projects. And these were not modest projects. Mike thought big. He created a highway. Think about that. In southern West Virginia, in terrain that makes the boldest highway engineer pause, with funding shrinking, Mike Whitt built a highway. He knew that infrastructure is essential. He knew that it was the necessary first step in completing any economic development project. He just made it happen.
Mike also built the Hatfield-McCoy Trail system as one of its original founders. He built water and sewer lines. He built a school. He built an orchard. He built an airport and a transportation park. He built a golf course. And, he helped build a community by bringing opportunities for jobs and tourism to Mingo County. It seemed there was nothing that he could not do. He never took credit for any of this, of course. He recognized that these projects were the result of the efforts of many groups brought together. But those of us who worked on these projects know that the drive and leadership was from the unassuming man heading up the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority.
When West Virginia had the chance to be a leader in attracting a coal-to-liquids plant, I knew that there was one person who could make sure that it was a success. That person was Mike Whitt. He had the ability, experience, and vision to make it happen. If it could be done, it would be done in Mingo County. Mike exceeded every expectation, every time, and in the process put this state in a position to land a three billion dollar investment.
I cannot even count the legacies that Mike Whitt has left in Mingo County and for our entire state. He will never be forgotten and his work will stand for generations to come. I think what I will remember most, though, is the last day that I met with him in person. It was this summer on August 15, and Mike was taking me on a tour of the new road and the new school. I could tell he was a bit tired, and he confessed to me that his health was not as good as it had been. What was most remarkable is that he was unconcerned for himself. Instead, he spoke of worrying that his wife and daughters were distraught and angry about what he termed as “this setback.” True selflessness and devotion to family is rare enough, but when added to Mike’s other rare gifts, it made me realize again what a special person he was. While he will be deeply missed, his friendship and strong legacy in Southern West Virginia will live in our hearts forever.