To never hear that golden voice again – Joe Whatley

Published 11:16 pm Saturday, October 25, 2008

With the passing of Joe Whatley of Carriere on Saturday, Oct.11, it would seem that sadly enough Picayune lost one its best friends and biggest advocates.

Whatley was originally from Jena, La. He moved to the Picayune area in 1953 at the urging of an uncle who hoped as a journalist, Whatley would buy the town’s local newspaper. Even though the newspaper purchase never came to be, from the time of his relocation until five years before his death he worked tirelessly for the betterment of Picayune. He was a friend to all who knew him, local business owner, a real estate agent, a politician, a news reporter and radio man and Picayune Chamber of Commerce president, 1973-74. For all those things and much more, he was named the Chamber’s 2002 Citizen of the Year.

Whatley worked six days a week until the age of 75, said Jill Whatley Stegall, his daughter. Stegall and Mary Whatley, Joe’s wife, both said that he always believed Picayune could be something, and he believed that the boom and influx of people from Louisiana would happen, although he thought it would happen in the 70s with the test site and during the time he was working round the clock as Chamber president. His family is just glad that the he lived long enough to see it happen post-Katrina. He always knew it would, his family said.

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During Whatley’s reign as Chamber president, his photo and name graced the pages of the local paper just about every publication. He fought the city on having the old wooden power poles that ran down U.S. 11 through the heart of Picayune removed. He oversaw Shay engine getting its due glory on a cement resting pad and he worked hard to help raise funds to have a Gazebo built in Crosby Park, the park adjacent to the Chamber where Shay and the gazebo co-habitate even today.

His Chamber presidency saw the Picayune Chamber join hands with the Hancock County Chamber. On Aug. 23, 1974, with Sen. John C. Stennis secured as keynote speaker for the awards banquet, 450 people attended the sold-out event. It was reported in the paper in the weeks leading up to the banquet that the Chamber was even offering to buy tickets back from those who knew they could not make it to accommodate those on the waiting list. The title of Stennis’ speech that year was “Inflation – Our gravest problem.”

Whatley’s obituary read “Joe has been truly missed, and it’s hard to accept that we will never hear his golden voice again.” One of the many things Whatley did for the town was bring to it live news broadcasts three times a day, six days a week, from the local radio station. He served as director of news at WRJW for more than 40 years. He was known as Joe, Your Hometown Reporter.

Mary Whatley worked by his side for a while after they moved to the area and bought their first 15 minutes of air time from the previous news reporters, Ma and Pa Mills. The Mills sold their news slot with the stipulation that they had to rename the program, so they were Joe and Mary, Your Hometown Reporters.

Flying solo, Whatley continued to do the news broadcast up until approximately five years ago when illness started to take hold.

On Sunday, Nov. 29, 1981, the Whatleys’ profiles were published in the Picayune Item. A quote was highlighted: “Whatley, omniscient as he is when it comes to local news, ranks right up there with Paul Harvey or a meteorologist who is able to predict the rain – everyone listens and listens well.”

Everyone knew if you heard it from Whatley, it was accurate and true.

Mary Whatley remembers the incident which marked the end of the Whatleys’ radio era like it was yesterday. He was leaving the station after a 4:30 p.m. broadcast, she said. The accident that occurred forced Joe Whatley into the hospital to have steel plates put in his legs. “He never drove again after that,” she said.

Mary Whatley, who isy battling with her own illness, stayed at her husband’s bedside as much as she could up until the end. Stegall, who also stayed by his side, said she heard her father say he wished he could do it all over again. Her mother then asked her father if there was anything he would do differently, and he said, “I would work harder.”

“That gives you an idea of the type of man he was,” said Stegall.

Joe Whatley was buried at the age of 80 on Oct. 15. He was preceded in death by his daughter Anna Whatley Smith, who died of cancer in December, 2007. He is survived by his wife; two daughters, Melinda Whatley Smolkin of West Hartford, Conn., and Stegall of Carriere; and five grandchildren.

Picayune, indeed, will morn the loss of this long-time advocate, for many years to come.