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Dr. Dave Whitaker Retires


Article by Allison Rehnborg; photo by Ryan Rehnborg

On October 25, 2014 the Tennessee Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro, TN rang with affectionate applause as the students, faculty, and alumni of the MTSU Horse Science Program bade farewell to one of their own: Dr. Dave Whitaker. Preceded by a reunion and an alumni open house at the Horse Science Center, Dr. Whitaker’s retirement dinner in the Coliseum included presentations by colleagues, former students, mentors, and family. Attended by close to 200 people, the evening was a fitting tribute to the man who spent more than three decades in the service of his industry, his university, and his students.

For the past 34 years, Dr. Whitaker has worked to build and promote the MTSU Horse Science Program. He first arrived in 1976 as Director of Public Service in Horse Science. During those early years, Dr. Whitaker worked hand-in-hand with fellow professor Anne Brzezicki to develop the program from its humble beginnings, when just a handful of majors and students took riding classes for physical education credit.

Part of Whitaker’s vision for the program involved the development of the MTSU Horse Judging Team. Over the years, Dr. Whitaker and his judging students have competed in regional and national competitions all over the United States. The group won the World Championship Quarter Horse Show contest twice and the Quarter Horse Congress judging contest three times. One of those wins was with a four-person team in 2005, the first four-person team ever to win the Congress since the contest began in 1969.

After leaving Tennessee to earn his doctorate in animal behavior at Texas Tech University, Dr. Whitaker returned to MTSU in 1982 as leader of the Horse Science Program. As the horse industry grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s, so did MTSU’s Horse Science enrollment. In 1994, with a grant from the John and Mary Miller Foundation, construction on the Tennessee Miller Coliseum began and it was completed in 2003. The university raised sufficient matching funds to obtain a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to build the MTSU Horse Science Center and create two new faculty positions. In 2003, as the students and faculty moved into their new facilities on Thompson Lane, Dr. Whitaker became the official Director of the MTSU Horse Science Program, while he continued to teach multiple classes each semester and to coach a new judging team every year.

Today, the MTSU Horse Science Program is the only one of its kind in Tennessee, with over 100 students, five instructors, a secretary, barn manager, and assistant barn manager to care for the nearly 50 University-owned horses. In 2011, MTSU Horse Science expanded to include a graduate program in Horse Science, offering a Master’s degree with three horse-related concentrations.

Whitaker has always taken great pride in helping his students discover and develop their talents – and then ensuring that they get the necessary experience, skills, and confidence to find their places in the horse world. Under Whitaker’s leadership, the Horse Science Program developed therapeutic riding classes (held in partnership with Saddle Up! Therapeutic Riding Center in Franklin, Tennessee) to teach Horse Science students about equine-assisted therapy. Most recently, MTSU Horse Science has created the Center of Equine Recovery for Veterans (CERV), a partnership with the Veterans Recovery Center in Murfreesboro, TN. Through CERV, students learn about equine-assisted therapy with adults, while veterans learn about basic horse behavior, body language, and riding.

At Dr. Whitaker’s retirement party, more than a dozen of Doc’s colleagues, former students, and mentors took the microphone to share their memories of times spent with Dr. Whitaker in the classroom, the show ring, and the community.

Dr. Doyle Meadows, retired UT Extension Horse Specialist and a longtime colleague of Dr. Whitaker, said simply, “We are not great. We may be good, we may be kind, and we may be gracious. But we are truly around greatness in Dave Whitaker. And for him, [greatness has] been easy: it was always about the kids.”

Many of those “kids” – members of Doc’s past judging teams –offered their heartfelt thanks for his impact on their lives. MTSU alum Terry Young spoke at length about his experiences on one of Doc’s judging teams, and what makes Dr. Whitaker so special.

“There are three things Dave does well and teaches others to do well,” Young said. “He’s a good leader. He is a master at putting together teams. If you’ve ever done that – you know it’s not easy. He’s instrumental in building programs, facilities, and organizations. In developing people, he’s a recycler. He learns as much from the people he mentors as his students [learn from him]. Dave’s influence through judging and friendship and those life skills he has taught took me in a new direction. He is a visionary leader, and visionary leaders don’t stop.”

Lanas Smith, an MTSU alum from the 1970s, described Dr. Whitaker with these words: “Integrity. Grace. Generosity. Humor. Wit. Coach. Teacher. Leader. Friend. Family man. Visionary. Transformer. Stockman.”

Anne Brzezicki, Dr. Whitaker’s colleague for more than thirty years, described Dr. Whitaker’s sense of vision: “He knew we could grow and always be improving our facilities, our people, and our offerings to our students and the horsemen of Tennessee. He saw what next big thing was coming down the pike that was going to be important to the horse industry. And he figured out how we could and should respond to that for the best of our students.”

Leaving sizeable void in the MTSU Horse Science Program, Brzezicki and the other faculty members at Horse Science realized that tackling Dr. Whitaker’s duties will have to be a team effort. Equine nutritionist Dr. Rhonda Hoffman will take the administrative duties, while equine exercise physiologist and stock horse team coach Dr. Holly Spooner will coach the judging team. Sarah Newton-Cromwell, M.S., will develop and teach MTSU’s equine-assisted activities and therapies courses.

“I have a lot to learn and huge shoes to fill,” Dr. Hoffman said. “But this isn’t about me – [it’s] about the MTSU Horse Science program. The plan is to continue to build and improve upon what we have, and in doing so, honor Dave’s life and vision.”

Regarding her plans for the judging team, Dr. Spooner said, “I’ll never fill Dr. Whitaker’s shoes when it comes to horse judging, but I have his passion for it and I see the value it has for students in terms of horses and reaching far beyond. We'll continue to have a judging team, starting with the usual trip to Texas this spring and be back in full swing next fall at the Congress and World Show contests.  We won't let Dr. Whitaker stray too far! He'll remain my top advisor on judging and he'll be back to help with our contests.”

Dr. Whitaker spoke to the crowd of friends and family gathered around him: “Y’all sure know how to reduce a man to pure emotion.  I owe so much of who I am to you. One thing we have in common is the horse – and what a wonderful creature, from a wonderful God, Who made it for us. I always thought it was my job to reach down and help those below me, as I’ve been helped in the past. And because each of you were there, my life has been so richly blessed. People have been asking me, ‘What’ll you do now?’ And my answer is, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never done this before.’”

Dr. Whitaker leaves a legacy at MTSU Horse Science that any faculty member at any university would be proud to claim. In retirement, Dave Whitaker can do anything he sets his mind to. Best wishes and happy trails to you! 

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