Stepping into Chuck Whitehill’s Pepper Pike home, one comes face to face with the story of his life.
Masks adorn the walls from his wife's travels, with family pictures and Judaica from the couple’s multiple trips to Israel on the shelves of a large display cabinet.
Before meeting his wife, Whitehill said he was all work and play, spending years at Ashley Furniture and golfing with his buddies during his downtime. It all changed when he met her, he said.
Joan Whitehill was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 18 years ago, pushing Whitehill to retire from his position in 2012 as he was dedicated to caring for her. When asked what he did outside of volunteering, Whitehill said the only thing he wants to focus on is being there for his wife.
“My focus is Joan,” he said. “Being her husband and her caregiver elevates the commitment adherent in our marriage vows. Has life changed? Yes. But when she smiles and squeezes my hand to express her thanks, all of the other activities I used to do are insignificant. The magic is still viable and fulfilling.”
When he isn’t caring for his wife, Whitehill lends his skills to the Kosher Food Pantry, Jewish National Fund and American Friends of Magen David Adom. Whitehill said he lends his skills remotely, holding meetings at his home or being involved through conference calls.
“(The food pantry) is a mitzvah machine,” he said. “Who knew that there were so many people, 80% of whom are Jewish, that were food insecure in this community? Not me. So, it was their mission that struck a chord with me.”
As for JNF and AFMDA, Whitehill said he was drawn to those causes for one simple reason: Israel.
“I am a Zionist. I believe in Israel as deeply as I believe in anything,” he said, specifically stating JNF helped him find a way to channel his love of improving the world and Israel.
With AFMDA, Whitehill said the organization is “about blood, and what is more basic than blood? Blood is life. And it’s in Israel.”
CJN: What inspired you to get involved?
Whitehill: It’s really simple. It’s tikkun olam. The first time I was exposed to the concept is when I came to Cleveland. I’m originally from Pittsburgh. Not that I’m being critical of Pittsburgh, my circles were just different. When I met Joan, we became a different chemistry and I wanted to improve the world. To be honest, Joan is the raison d’etre. She pulled me kicking and screaming. It’s the truth – she is such a dynamic human being. So, my answer is I want to make a meaningful difference. I don’t want my time here to be wasted.
CJN: How does your Jewish identity play a part in this? Was this something you learned from a young age?
Whitehill: No, absolutely not. Even though I went to a synagogue, Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh. I then went away to college, University of Miami in Coral Gables Fla., and I was just not connected. My destiny was unclear. My future changed geometrically when I met Joan. She was the catalyst for me.
To some degree, I have also been her catalyst. It’s the chemistry thing. You become a different person – you’re not selfish, you share. Even though she grew up in Cleveland, she didn’t have this central in her life. We made it a priority together. As a matter of fact, Joan arranged for us to have a b’nai mitzvah. It was a Herculean task.
It was this return to spiritualism, and we did it in 18 months. We had to learn everything and go in front of a large crowd at B’nai Jeshurun one Shabbos morning and run the service. And we did. The other part of it is our connection to Rabbi Stanley Schachter, who was our spiritual guide. He made everything relevant and put it all into perspective. It changes individuals and that is how it happened.
Additionally, Joan was invited to be part of the Wexner Heritage Foundation classes here. I think there were 25 people in our graduating class. And the graduation was in Israel. Joan and I decided we were going to get married there with our graduating class.
So, you put all of this stuff in the pot and it’s simmering together and you come out a different person.
CJN: Do you have a favorite memory of your volunteering?
Whitehill: Well, any way you look at it, you have to put the b’nai mitzvah right at the top. We were evolving and changing everyday. And I don’t want to be repetitive, but I have to put the Wexner experience right up there. I would never diminish the value of those two experiences.
Inspired to make a difference because of the impact his wife has on his life, Whitehill said the legacy he wants to leave should also be focused on the dedication and love he has for her.
“Anyone who knows me knows I am totally 100% committed to my wife,” he said. “So, whatever legacy that leaves, I want that. I know that not every story has the same storyline, but I am fully committed to adding the value that I need to add for Joan. Nothing else comes close. She has made such an impact on my life. I’m not a chemist, but if the two of us had never gotten together, our paths would’ve been completely different. It’s beshert.”