Plumber had 2nd career as math teacher


James K. Whitehead, 89, a plumber and officer in the Army Reserve who relished the challenge of teaching junior high students, died of cancer Tuesday in Hospice of Northwest Ohio, South Detroit Avenue.

Mr. Whitehead of South Toledo retired in 1988 as a seventh and eighth-grade math teacher in the Springfield Local Schools.

His wife, Claire, was a teacher for the district. In the late 1960s, Springfield had an opening just as he needed to change occupations. He’d worked for his father’s plumbing and heating business, Burt Whitehead & Sons Inc., since returning from Army Air Corps service in World War II. The physical demands of the job — not least wrestling boilers and water heaters in and out of place, up and down stairs — led a doctor to say that Mr. Whitehead would require surgery or long-term bed rest if he didn’t find another job.

He’d taken engineering courses at the University of Toledo, but had no teaching experience. So eager were school officials for him to start that they made sure he had a temporary teaching certificate while he completed course work.

“He was in his element [and] basically kind of discovered, shoot, I should have gone into this in the first place,” his son said. Eventually, Mr. Whitehead had chances at other assignments.

“Junior high kids are an exceptional challenge, and Dad stayed by choice. He loved that age group,” his son, James, said. “He had a way of connecting with them a lot of teachers don’t. He was able to communicate with kids rather than talking at kids.”

He was born Sept. 18, 1923, to Alice and Burton Whitehead. He was a 1941 graduate of DeVilbiss High School. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was a ground crew mechanic in Italy who made sure B-24 bombers were ready for their next mission.

After the war, he enrolled in UT and in the ROTC. He was commissioned in the Army Reserve, climbed the ranks, and retired in 1983 as a lieutenant colonel. He was able to take an Honor Flight to Washington about two years ago.

He and his wife traveled the country and the world based on where they found an interesting Elderhostel program. They also researched their families’ histories.

Surviving are his wife, Claire Whitehead, whom he married June 6, 1946; daughters, Katherine Harrod and Rebecca Stewart; son, James C. Whitehead; five grandsons, and 10 great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 2 to 8 p.m. today in the Walter Funeral Home. Services will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday in Church of St. Andrew United Methodist, where he was a member.

The family suggests tributes to Hospice of Northwest Ohio or a charity of the donor’s choice.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: mzaborney@theblade.com or 419-724-6182.