Remembering Slim Whitman, the Church’s ‘Mr. Songman.’

Photo by courtesy of Brethren Press
“Mr. Songman” biography of the country singer Slim Whitman, published by Brethren Press in 1982

Country singer Slim Whitman, 90, who was a longtime member and deacon emeritus at Jacksonville (Fla.) Church of the Brethren, passed away June 19 at Orange Park (Fla.) Medical Center. He was the subject of the book “Mr. Songman,” written by Kenneth L. Gibble and published by Brethren Press in 1982.

Remembered by friends in the congregation and Atlantic Southeast District as a gentle and loving man, Whitman retained his Brethren simplicity even as he gained in popularity as a performer. He is remembered in media reports as “the high-pitched yodeler who sold millions of records” and whose song saved the world in the film comedy “Mars Attacks!” He recorded more than 65 albums, and was known for his three-octave singing range.

His obituaries have recorded his musical influence on early rock, and how he popularized country music, particularly in the UK. “Whitman also encouraged a teen Elvis Presley when he was the headliner on the bill and the young singer was making his professional debut,” noted one report.

“His career spanned six decades, beginning in the late 1940s, but he achieved cult figure status in the 1980s. His visage as an ordinary guy singing romantic ballads struck a responsive chord with the public,” said the Huffington Post, which quoted Whitman’s good humored comment about a famous TV advertisement for his music: “It buys fuel for the boat.”

“I don’t think you’ve ever heard anything bad about me, and I’d like to keep it that way,” he was quoted in the Huffington Post. “I’d like my son to remember me as a good dad. I’d like the people to remember me as having a good voice and a clean suit.”

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
The Messenger Dinner program that featured a drawing of Slim Whitman by Messenger editor Kermon Thomasson, Annual Conference 1982

Slim Whitman performed at the Messenger Dinner at the Annual Conference in Wichita, Kan., in 1982. For the occasion, “Messenger” editor Kermon Thomasson drew him for the cover of the dinner program, shown playing his guitar and adorned with sequins. Brethren Press publisher Wendy McFadden, at the time on the Messenger staff, recalls the flurry of activity to prepare for the dinner and how the “sequins” on the program illustrations were created by hand with glue and glitter.

Whitman was for many years a deacon at Jacksonville Church of the Brethren, where his wife Alma Geraldine (Jerry) often cooked the love feast meal, reported family friend Ruby Raymer. “They were good church members,” Raymer said.

The Jacksonville congregation would gather for a Sunday evening Bible study in the 1960s and ’70s, when Jerry would play the piano and Slim would lead a hymn sing.

Whitman also was a good fisherman, taking out his boat “Chicken of the Sea” to fish off the Florida Keys. He loved animals, Raymer said, to the point of taking in a stray cat he named Roadkill, and once buying a new ladder when the short ladder he was going to use to fix his roof was of a length to disturb a dove’s nest. He couldn’t bear to destroy the doves’ home, she recalled.

“I want him remembered as just a simple, living person,” Raymer said, telling of the Whitmans’ simple lifestyle. While he was still able, Whitman cared for his property himself, and maintained his own equipment. “He didn’t take advantage of the fact that he was famous.”

Ruby and her husband Bill accompanied the family on Slim Whitman’s Farewell Tour when–at close to 80–he toured England, Scotland, and Ireland for the last time. His shows were sold out. “He didn’t miss a cue,” Raymer said. “He didn’t have a prompter. The only thing he had at the show was a piece of notebook paper with the songs he would do that night.”

At one of Slim’s last shows in Ireland, the crowd began to hum along softly to “Rose Marie.” Hearing them, as Raymer tells it, Whitman paused and invited the people to sing along. He always went out front after each performance to meet his fans, and during the Farewell Tour emotional fans crowded around wanting a last chance to give Slim Whitman a hug.

Son Byron Whitman “was half of his show for many years,” Raymer said. Byron played the keyboard organ and would introduce his father. “Do what you do do well,” Slim had told Byron when he was a little boy, Raymer remembers–advice that stuck with him, and was picked up by others who were struck by its wisdom.

Born in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 23, 1923, he was named Ottis Dewey Whitman Jr. Before his singing career he worked as a meatpacker and a postman and also worked at a shipyard. Whitman’s wife Jerry passed away in 2009. After her death, he produced a last album on CD titled “Twilight on the Trail,” in her memory. He is survived by his son Byron, daughter Sharron Beagle who is married to Roy Beagle, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on June 29 at The Rock Bible Church, a Church of the Brethren congregation in Middleburg, Fla. Jerry Whitman’s father, A.D. Crist, helped build the congregation, formerly named Clay County Church of the Brethren.

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