In the spring of 1967, retired Army Col. Chester E. Whiting was called before the Republican state central coimmittee, which was assessing potential appointees to the Prince George's County school board.
They asked him how he felt about busing.
"I said, 'Well, if the weather is inclement the children should be bused.' Several people smiled, but they didn't bother to pursue it," Whiting now recalls.
The next day, Whiting learned he had been appointed to the board.He served for 14 years, through a period when school busing for racial integration was a controversial issue continually before the school board.
Whiting piloted the board through some of the stormiest years of school desegregation, and through the heady "one-new-classroom-a-day" growth period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He did it, to hear his fellow board members tell it, with a touch of wit, class and military dash they had not seen before and do not expect to see again.
Tonight Whiting will take his seat at the polished, horseshoe-shaped table in Upper Marlboro for the last time. Defeated in last May's primary, he will be replace by Catherine Burch, a homemaking from Langley Park.
Whiting is a man of another time and another America. Born in the first year of this century, he reached young manhood during the Roaring Twenties in his native Boston. When his distinctive white hair was light brown and full, he wore it slicked down, and went to the classier speak-easies, like The New Gin Mill.
He spent 16 years teaching the men of the Massachusetts National Guard's 110th Cavalry band to play their instruments while on horseback. He says he was a perfectionist, leading the proud procession for review before the citizens of Boston with shimmering sabre, spit-polished and shiny brass tack.
"I often think about Chester Whiting riding through a field playing music on a horse," said board member Susan Bieniasz. "I wish my child could have an opportunity to know more people like Chester."
When his national guard unit marched into the Pacific Theatre of World War II, the then 14-year-old Whiting marched with them. He was named leader of the 80-piece 26th (Americal) Division band. Twice his bandsmen waded onto the beaches of Guadalcanal and Bougainville. They slept in the mud, caught malaria, provided support services to the ground soldiers in combat and played music when they got a chance. On his back in the trenches, Whiting wrote "The Americal Division" and "Doughboy and Marine" -- both still standards for military bands.
When the war ended, as Whiting prepared to return to Boston and teach music to high school students, Gen. Jacob L. Devers gave Whiting an appointment that changed his life.
"I want you to organize a band that will carry into the grass roots of our country the story of our magnificent Army . . . the great symbol of American Manhood -- The Ground Soldier," said Devers, as recalled in Whiting's autobiography, "The Baton and The Pendulum."
That band, The United States Army Field Band, toured the nation and the world in the 1950s. On one 1957 tour Whiting lead the band through 12 European nations, in 45 concerts before 350,000 listeners, playing "everywhere from a French vegetable market to a Spanish bull ring," according to a newspaper account.
Whiting, a Republican, was appointed to the Prince George's County school board in 1967 by then Gov. Spiro T. Agnew, seven years after Whiting's retirement from the Army.
During 1971 and 1972 he voted with a conservative majority against full desegregation of county schools. His support of the "neighborhood schools" concept earned him the backing of the conservative Citizens for Community Schools, which rode the backlash against court-ordered busing in the first school board election in 1973.
Yet in later years, he did not always side with the hard-core conservatives on the board. He was chairman in 1973 and 1974, when Citizens for Community Schools talked of boycotting the schools and fighting to the end with the backing of Lawrence J. Hogan, then a Republican congressman, now county executive. Whiting was sanguine about the court order as the rule of law. He called the reaction of the parents and elected officials "hysteria."
"He could make some very individual statements at times," said a board colleague, Bonnie Johns. "He has a grand sense of humor and wit. He could be impatient with time, however, when people would prattle along."
"When I first came on the board the one that intimidated me the most was Chester Whiting. He always came to the table prepared," said board chairman Jo Ann Bell.
"He'd lean back in his chair and make like a steeple with his fingers: 'Now Mrs. Bell, you certainly aren't going to take up the time of this board with that question,'" Bell recalls. Later in the evening, she said, he could be counted on to reassure the new board member privately, "'Now you understand, dear, I was not doing it because I was mad at you. You are every inch the board member I am,'" she said, miming Whiting's gravel voice and his Boston accent.
Now 80, Whiting credits his vitality to regular exercise and the relaxation of tending the dozens of azaleas that surround his home on a quiet Takoma Park street. Sligo Creek meanders through a park just beyond his kitchen window.
"I eat like a horse, I drink a cocktail before dinner. It's something slightly immoral of course but . . .," and his voice trails off.
He last held a baton before the Northwestern Senior High School band in 1976, shortly after he had suffered a heart attack. He was wearing a mechanical device to measure his heart activity.
"I'm an emotional conductor. Everything I've ever conducted I've felt. The adrenalin boils. It made that tape go wild," he said.
Although the home he shares with his wife Helen and his 24-year-old daughter Susan is full of awards, decorations and certificates from a life of public service, Whiting holds no undue attachment to the music he no longer plays or conducts or the meetings he'll no longer attend. He appears to accept the change of life style with the same philosophy he applied to his heart attack:
"It was one of those things -- either you live or die. I lived."