Whitey Hitchcock is many things — a painter, weaver, mushroom hunter — and not least, a commissioner in Anderson County, Tenn.
But that just scratches the surface. A former teacher, he is also the embodiment of a life-long learner, which has influenced his many professional and leisure pursuits.
He believes that being in a constant learning mode makes for a better teacher, one who is able to understand things from a student’s perspective. He shares his thoughts and philosophy in a new, self-published paperback book, “Soul of a Teacher: Be the Hero of Your Own Story.” Hitchcock calls the 194-page tome “part memoir, part philosophy and part epistemology.”
Photo courtesy of Whitey Hitchcock
In one of his favorite photos, “fungi forager” Whitey Hitchcock, an Anderson County, Tenn. commissioner, shows off a cauliflower mushroom (Sparassis courtni) among others in their natural setting. Mushroom hunting is just one of this perpetual student’s many interests.
Its target audience is science teachers; but on a broader scale, he says, it should appeal to “a combination of people who are trying to live a meaningful life with a spiritual component.”
“There are so many things that I had learned along the way teaching,” said Hitchcock, whose first name is Harry, “and I kind of wanted to make a record of it.
“With all the changes that are taking place now in education, there are multiple people just struggling and disillusioned and discouraged. And I said, well, maybe we can give them a little hope and another way of looking at it.”
Hitchcock, 66, is in his second term as a commissioner in Anderson County, population 75,129 and home to Oak Ridge. He turned to teaching late in life — at age 48. Before that, he had worked variously as a professional forester, certified addictions counselor — and as a strength and conditioning coach for Pat Summitt’s winning Lady Vols basketball team at the University of Tennessee, one of his alma maters. His academic degrees include a B.S. in forestry from U.T. and a doctorate in education, with an emphasis on exercise physiology. It was while serving in the Air Force in Japan during the Vietnam War era that he picked up the nickname Whitey — because of his white-blond hair. Now, some folks call him “Dr. Whitey.”
In his 40s, he was working as a substance abuse counselor for the Veterans Administration in Birmingham, Ala. But he longed to share his life experiences with others in a way that might be helpful.
“I found that most of the things that I had done in my life had some component of teaching,” he said. He applied to a program for mid-career professionals who wanted to become teachers and obtained his certification.
Just before running for office, he taught high school ecology and anatomy in the county. In fact, it was his love of education that led him to run for commissioner.
“I felt like there might be some way that I could have some influence on the direction of education in the area; but as a teacher, being on the school board wasn’t an option,” he explained. “So I ran for commission to try to make some difference in education by having a public platform.”
Beginning again…and again
When Hitchcock was a teacher, he decided to try to learn one new thing every year — “because that would keep me in a beginner mode.” He felt it helped him as a teacher to meet his students on their own terms, since in many ways, they too, were beginners: learning new information. It gave him empathy for the frustrations they might face.
He once invited a graduate student in mycology, the study of mushrooms and other fungi, to speak to his science class, and he became interested in the subject. She told him about a group of mushroom hunters in Asheville, N.C, a couple of hours drive away. He joined. His interest “snowballed,” and he’s been scouring the woods for nearly 20 years now.
“What I like is that you’ll never know everything,” he said. “So there’s always something to learn every time you go out. It changed my focus from looking at the trees as a forester to looking at a much smaller part of the forest where most of the life is there.”
Mushrooms fascinate him because of their biological diversity — “There are so many colors, so many forms.” But scientifically, he’s intrigued by the essential two research questions: “Why here and not there, and why now and not then?” He’s found chanterelles — which he enjoys for their “apricotty flavor — morels and lobster mushrooms, among many others.
But his search continues for the illusive Hen of the Woods (not to be confused with the Chicken of the Woods) mushroom. “It’s the only good edible mushroom in the southeastern United States that I’ve never found,” he said. They can grow to a weight of 25 to 30 pounds — big enough for sharing.
Captain Ahab-like, he adds, “It’s like that white whale; I just want to find it. I’ll feel incomplete until I do.”
Finding His Creativity
Not content to rest on his morels, Hitchcock — who as a child never thought he was creative — learned to paint watercolors of mushrooms. He has painted 20 to 30 mushrooms that he’s framed and also made into greeting cards.
Once, he and his wife, Ellen, a clinical social worker, were watching a TV program about spinning yarn, so he learned to do that. “From there, I got interested in dyeing, because some mushrooms make dyes,” he said. That eventually led him to a craft center, where he learned to weave. His creations include place mats, table runners and some purses for his wife. He sells some items, along with mushrooms, at local farmers’ markets.
“A lot of this just flows one thing into another,” Hitchcock said. “I find it plays over onto my role on the commission too,” where he is one of 16 county commissioners. “I think I fill a certain niche with my perspectives that maybe is a little different. As the woman who made pickles was saying once, you have to think outside the jar,” he joked.
Outside the jar, box or whatever container, Hitchcock often shared this advice with his students about “Commitment & Failure,” the title of one of the chapters in his book, and still abides by it today:
“You don’t know what your best is until you have failed while totally committed,” he said. “And the operative word here is totally committed. Otherwise you get a false sense of how good you are or a false sense of how short you come up from where you want to be.”