Prominent Kentucky businessman Elmer Whitaker, who rose from the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky to build a banking empire, died Sunday. He was 85.
Mr. Whitaker died at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio from complications due to diabetes, said Elmer Keith Whitaker, his grandson.
Described as humble, Mr. Whitaker was known as a man who didn't hesitate to show appreciation and take the time to send a handwritten note.
"He touched so many lives, the magnitude of the impact he had, starting from absolutely nothing, losing everything he had on more than one occasion," Elmer Keith Whitaker said. "He was never officially bankrupt, but he never missed an obligation to pay someone. More than once it took everything he had. But he continued to sacrifice personally for the sake of those helping him try to achieve his dream. And he was able to persevere and be the success he's known as today."
Raised in Leslie County, Mr. Whitaker began as a miner and became a self-made millionaire. He founded Whitaker Bank, which operates now in more than 17 counties in Kentucky.
In a history on coal mining for the University of Kentucky's Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, Mr. Whitaker recalled growing up in a coal mining town, where his father, Luther, and grandfather, George, had been miners.
After graduating at the age of 16 from Viper High School in 1946, Mr. Whitaker went to work loading coal with a shovel. At the time, ponies were used to pull coal from the underground mines.
Mr. Whitaker and his father soon bought an interest in a mine in Leslie County, where they worked 17 hours a day. Eventually, he built that one mine into Whitaker Coal Corp. and went into banking.
In 1978, Mr. Whitaker bought three bank charters in Central and Eastern Kentucky, including People's Bank and Trust in Madison County. The bank bought up competitors and spread throughout the state to become one of the largest in Kentucky, with more than 500 employees and almost $2 billion in total assets.
In 2011, as one of the first inductees into the Appalachian Mountain Coalfields Hall of Fame, Mr. Whitaker said his heart remained in coal.
"The coal business has been good to me ... I spent 42 years in the coal business," Mr. Whitaker said at the time. "There are no other people like the people of Eastern Kentucky. I depended on them, and they depended on me."
Although Mr. Whitaker shied away from publicity, many Kentuckians are familiar with the Whitaker Bankshot, a college scholarship program sponsored at the University of Kentucky to help student athletes complete their degrees.
And his bank, of which grandson Elmer Keith Whitaker is now CEO, in 2011 bought naming rights for Whitaker Bank Ballpark where the Lexington Legends baseball team plays.
Alan Stein, retired president and CEO of the Legends, said Sunday night that Mr. Whitaker had a wonderful influence on the business community.
"He was kind, quiet, gentle, incredibly smart. Just his style and demeanor were of a wonderful genteel man," Stein said. "But from his upbringing, he was scrapper and not somebody you wanted to cross. I admired the hell out of him."
Stein said that when he was first getting started in business, Mr. Whitaker had supported a real estate project in which Stein was involved. To thank him, Stein left a smoked turkey at Mr. Whitaker's house for Thanksgiving.
"Two days later, I got a handwritten note from Elmer Whitaker, thanking me for that thoughtful gift, and saying what an honor it was to be in business with me," Stein said. "That has stuck with me. If Elmer Whitaker could take the time to write a handwritten note to a kid he didn't really know, then we all can, too."
During the 1980s, Mr. Whitaker helped redevelop Victorian Square, a block of 16 historic buildings in downtown Lexington that now houses, among other things, Lexington Children's Theatre.
Dudley Webb, a partner in Victorian Square, on Sunday called Mr. Whitaker a great man.
"He'll be greatly missed," Webb said. "He did a lot for Lexington and for Eastern Kentucky."
Mr. Whitaker built a gymnasium for a small school in Perry County that didn't have one, and he was a donor to many colleges in the area including Transylvania University; Eastern Kentucky University; the College of the Cumberlands, where he was on the board; and UK, including giving $100,000 to the Wildcat Coal Lodge that houses the men's basketball team.
On Sunday night, UK men's basketball coach John Calipari said it a tweet that Whitaker "was a good man who was good to me and to the university. My prayers go out to his family."
"I have to say for me, and the entire business community of the state, he's been an exceptional role model of business ethics and generosity," Elmer Keith Whitaker said Sunday. "As he had success, he never forgot to contribute back to the economy of the state."
Mr. Whitaker is survived by his wife, Beverly; his son, Jack Whitaker of Lexington; daughter, Tammy Whitaker Adams of Georgetown; grandchildren Elmer Keith Whitaker, Anna Lake, Jaquelin Murphy, John Whitaker, Rebecca Doehring, Luke Adams, Jake Adams, and Josh Adams; and many great-grandchildren.
Arrangements were pending at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home.
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl.