Wife of Columbus State University’s Founding President Dies
COLUMBUS, Ga. — Mary Jo Whitley, the wife of Columbus State University’s founding president, died Tuesday at her home near Social Circle, Ga., family members said.
As the university’s first first lady, Mrs. Whitley made a quiet, yet indelible mark on Columbus College, working behind the scenes and beside her husband, Thomas Y. Whitley, from the institution’s founding in 1958 until the Whitleys moved back to Social Circle.
“This is a sad, sad day for Columbus State University,” said CSU President Tim Mescon. “I was honored to have spent some time with her recently, and I can assure you that Mary Jo Whitley was as fine a lady as there ever was. She made an immediate mark on me personally, and I’m sure I will continue to discover ways that she left her mark on this university.”
Mrs. Whitley led the Faculty Wives Club as well as numerous other organizations in Columbus and on campus, always stressing the importance and contributions of others. University veterans remember her grace, her smile, her friendliness and the full support she gave to all campus causes and activities. The combination made an immeasurable influence on the institution and community. Columbus State gave both Whitleys honorary degrees in 1998.
“I would maintain that what the Whitleys did was, of course build a college, but they also built a community,” said Frank Brown, president of CSU from 1988-2008. “They built a relationship between the college and the community that stands to this day at a level that has not been reached by any other community that I know of.”
Brown said he and his wife were close friends of the Whitleys and learned to appreciate their impact on the university.
“You can look at everything that’s been developed at the institution and you can see the fingerprints of, not only Tom, but also Mary Jo Whitley,” he said. “When people today talk about the uniqueness of the Shannon Hosiery Mill experience, they are also talking about the uniqueness of Tom and Mary Jo Whitley and how they took ownership of the college and the students and the faculty.”
Ray Lakes was a student when the Whitleys lived in the president’s house, which once stood on the land now home to CSU’s Cunningham Center for Leadership Development. Now executive director of the CSU Alumni Association, Lakes said Mary Jo Whitley has been a longtime friend and supporter of the university.
“I have known Mrs. Whitley and the Whitley family for 40 years, since my days as a student at Columbus College,” Lakes said. “Mrs. Whitley was a warm and engaging lady – a true Southern lady in the best sense of the word. She was tall, very graceful and had a warm smile. She served as a gracious hostess at many college events. As the first first lady of CSU, she shared in and enhanced her husband’s work as the College’s founding president. She was and remained a steadfast supporter of CSU and its students. She will truly be missed by all those who loved, admired and respected her.”
Funeral arrangements have been made with Meadows Funeral Home at 760 Highway 11 SW, Monroe, Georgia 30655. Visitation will be held from 6-9 p.m. Thursday, June 25 and a funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, June 26. Interment will immediately follow at the Social Circle City Cemetery, in Social Circle.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be sent to the Dr. Thomas Y. Whitley Scholarship Endowment, Columbus State University, 4225 University Avenue, Columbus, GA 31907.
“On behalf of all the members of the Whitley family, I would like to thank you for your support and well-wishes,” Whitley’s son, Joe, said in an e-mail to friends. “It is truly appreciated by us all.”