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6/5/97 State police chief underscores ‘the right thing, the right way’

BATON ROUGE, La. (BP)–A Marine Corps saber hangs on the wall with a photo of a young serviceman receiving it during a military ceremony — and Col. William “Rut” Whittington sits nearby, laughing about an experience he had while in that branch of service.
“As a young Marine serving some time on a ship, they put me up there one day at the wheel,” he recalls. “And I really didn’t want to take it because it looks easy to steer, but it’s not. And the way you tell how you’re doing is by the wake. You take a good sailor steering straight and you can see it by looking at the wake behind the ship. It’s a straight line.
“But of course everybody was looking and laughing because mine was all squiggly.”
Years later, however, Whittington is back at the helm of a ship — and the line he is steering now as head of Louisiana’s state police is straight.
“Our focus is to do the right thing the right way for the right reason,” Whittington explains. “And I think we’re on track.”
Even so, it is a track Whittington never contemplated. The lifelong Louisiana Baptist confesses he has never really had a plan for the course of his life. “I’ve been one of those guys who has never run into a burning bush or anything like that. I just look up years later — kind of like (the movie character) Forrest Gump — and say, my goodness, something was going on there because I didn’t have enough sense to make that decision on my own.”
But then again, maybe no one could have guessed at the path that led Whittington to be appointed to his office by Gov. Mike Foster and given the challenge of revitalizing and redirecting the state police force.
After all, Whittington was a “preacher’s kid.” In fact, his father was chair of the Louisiana College religion department from 1945-70. Whittington remembers spending a lot of time at the college, but he admits he never did adapt to the fishbowl type of life that came with growing up in a small community and having a preacher for a dad. In fact, he talks about having a real fear of being “called” into the ministry and of spending a lot of years in a “hideout mode.”
It was not that Whittington was anti-Christian. In fact, he says he vividly remembers his salvation experience at age 6. “But what I really missed — as so many do — is that when you moved into adolescence, you fail to take that with you and make it your own,” he says.
Instead, Whittington felt a need to be on his own. He joined the Marines out of high school and enjoyed the service. But he says he knew his parents were disappointed he had not pursued an education. So after one term of enlistment, Whittington returned home to enroll in Louisiana College.
As he tells the story of the move, he speaks about the “trial and error” aspect of it, about God nudging him along to get where he did not even realize he was headed, about the terrific education he received and about meeting Sandy, his wife.
He speaks of her without using the word “godsend,” but the sentiment is there. “If you’re a guy at Louisiana College, you have a better than average opportunity of running into the right person for your life,” he says. “And that’s important, because you really don’t have enough sense at that age to help yourself out. No kind of way. You almost need divine intervention.”
Whittington looks at his marriage as the defining — and guiding – – experience of his personal spiritual life. However, the course of his life was still to take some twists and turns.
After graduating from Louisiana College in 1968, Whittington re-entered the Marines, serving for another three years. He then ended up in a master’s program at Louisiana State University. While there, it just made sense to him that he serve in the Marine reserves, which just happened to be a military police unit in Baton Rouge.
“So without any real thought on my part, I just sort of ended up as an investigator with the attorney general’s office and a year later as a state trooper,” Whittington recalls. “None of these were things I was looking for. It just sort of seemed to happen. But I look back now and think perhaps the Lord was there working things out.”
If so, God certainly was not through yet.
In 1986, Whittington left Baton Rouge to return to Pineville because his parents needed someone near as they grew older. By all rights, such a move away from the political center of the state should have been terminal for his career, he says.
Then came the election of Foster in 1995. And then came the appointment of Whittington, who had been encouraged to seek his current office on earlier occasions but never had.
For one thing, he had established some moral parameters about his service — and those precluded him from serving as head of the state office unless he felt there was a match with the governor. With Foster, there definitely was a match.
“When I interviewed with him personally in December 1996, the way he started the conversation was by saying he would never ask me to do anything that is either illegal or immoral,” Whittington recalls. “And he never has.”
Not that it would do much good to ask, given Whittington’s commitment to honest service — a commitment grounded in his faith and established early in his career. “It really went back to a lot of those lessons taught by my parents and in church. I hate to say it, but at that time my faith and witness had a great deal of work that needed to be done. But I look back now and see that all of that foundation was there, so to me there was really only one way to do something like this — and that was the right way. It’s a place of service and honest service. And anything less than that was unacceptable.”
For instance, Whittington explains his typical response to someone seeking favors regarding traffic citations. “What I would always ask people right off is, ‘Did we give you something or did you earn it? Because if you earned it, I really don’t want to take it from you.’ Normally, that’s the end of the conversation.”
Whittington acknowledges his principles were tested at times — and were not universally embraced. But even in the tests, he says he sees now that God was at work, helping him. In addition, Whittington had the “heroes” of his youth — people who demonstrated the Christian life to him, working to do the right thing day by day.
“We never know what impact we’re having on somebody else,” he explains. “I had Christian teachers. And I didn’t realize how many people I knew then who were really righteous people. I didn’t know until I left home and went off in the service. I thought that was just the way everybody was.
“All those things make an impression on you. And now I find I look back and almost any situation that comes up, I have some good model, some role model of experience, that I saw doing the right thing at the right time. It’s a foundation you take on that at the time you don’t have any idea it’s being laid down. But how fortunate to have had those lessons.”
Yes, there were some real crossroads on some issues, Whittington says. And there were tests. And there were people who did not understand. “But it’s much easier now. … I think the mentality back in my earlier days were more on the ends and less on the means. Now, we try to follow it all the way through — do the right thing the right way.”
It is a philosophy Whittington seeks to teach to everyone on the state force. He calls it “Whittington’s Leadership Theorem” and compares it to use of a gun — if a gun is carefully maintained and kept free of harmful elements and if one’s aim is true, that person will be “on target” in their use of the weapon.
Likewise, if a state trooper possesses the “Four Cs” — character, competence, commitment and compassion — minus the “Two Cs” — corruption and cronyism — and if a trooper has a steady moral compass for making decisions, his service will be true and honest, Whittington explains.
It is a theorem based on Whittington’s understanding of the biblical assertion that government as ordained of God. “Now, that’s scary to me. It means we’re a servant, so I think we’ll be held to a higher accountability for our type of service. …
“So I’ve told everybody that this is the way I’m going to operate, this is the way I want them to operate, this is the way I want them to evaluate our service. … Every time our troopers have to listen to me for a few minutes, I’m pushing this thing.”
Whittington also pushes the idea of each trooper being a leader, noting they are given two very big powers — to take a life in certain circumstances and to restrict a person’s liberties. “And if we’re going to deal with those things, we need to do so honorably. … We want to make sure we identify what’s important and teach it and reteach it and reteach it.”
One of the things Whittington quickly decided was not important was the infamous quota system that required troopers to write a certain number of tickets. He scraped the idea immediately and told troopers to concentrate more on helping people. After all, most of the dealings a trooper has are with ordinary people just trying to get through life, Whittington says. “So we tell them, help them get through that day.”
Meanwhile, Whittington gets through his days by understanding where his ability to do the job comes from, he says. “I very much understand that I’m overwhelmed in this job. It’s bigger than me. I can’t do it alone. So it’s forced me to go to the Word and to pray more. And that’s been good for me in the sense that if things are going well for you and you don’t feel challenged, then generally you think you’re doing OK on your own. But this is so overwhelming that I know better than that and I know I need help.”
Whittington also speaks of the need to get “re-churched” and “re-energized” on weekends, when he travels back to Pineville and teaches Sunday school at Kingsville Baptist Church. And he talks in terms of Ephesians 6 and of putting on the armor of God — including what he refers to as a scriptural ammunition belt. “I’m not a big memory guy, but I have several specific reaffirming Scriptures in my memory — and that’s part of that suiting up every day and putting on that armor and getting ready for battle.”
In terms of battle, Whittington admits he underestimated the difficulty of changing things. But he also has the assurance that change will prevail. A case in point is the ongoing effort to clean up the gambling mess in Louisiana. Whittington says what he wants is the same thing a homeowner wants — a certificate saying his structure is free of termites.
“Our position from the start is there’s only one way and that’s the right way. And if folks are disturbed because we’re going through records and such, they just need to get over it. The public is entitled to good honest service … .”
In addition, Whittington admits he probably has underestimated the nature of evil, failing to see it as a specific force. “I just saw it as sort of a basic thing out there. … But if the devil is indeed out there — and we’re told in the Bible that he is — and if he is conducting a campaign against us more or less, then we need to make sure we prepare for that just like you would in a military sense. Because there’s a whole lot of difference between being up against some vague, ill-defined threat and being up against an enemy that plans and operates against you and looks for weak points and exploits them.”
Whittington says he nevertheless is optimistic about what is happening in Louisiana. “Being around my dad and mother so many years, I know what good really is. I know a lot of people just can’t measure up to that. But I’m amazed by some of the people I’m serving with down here and their spiritual depth. I’m not sure why the Lord has developed an intense interest in Louisiana, but I’m convinced that something big is going on here. … Whatever it is, we have a chance here. And I’ve been around too long to think it’s coincidence.”
And in the end, Whittington cannot cast where he is and what he is involved with to coincidence either. He tells how he admires people with stirring testimonies, such as a friend who was saved in the middle of a naval battle in the Pacific Ocean. “I wish I could come up with something like that, but mine has been more of a slow, plodding. I’ve always felt a little deficient when I look at my parents and say, gee, I don’t really measure up to that sort of thing at all.”
Whittington does recall that at a revival service when he was 16 years old, he turned his back “on some kind of tug, whatever it was, and just refused to let go of that stadium seat.
“So whatever it was, I just didn’t do it and I think I probably ended up on a secondary track,” he says.
But then as he considers the twists and turns his career could have taken and looks at the opportunity before him, he adds, “I think this thing really worked out to where I’m probably where I need to be. I’m careful not to describe too much meaning to stuff, but as I look back, it just seems like a lot of things happened that I can’t explain … but that factored in to allow for preparation now to serve in this capacity.
“It’s really unbelievable. And whatever it is, it is humbling to me. Because just in the event it was important enough to the Lord to work some of these things out, I had better be serious and take care of business now.”
And it does not take long to see that Whittington’s focus is on doing just that — the right way, of course.

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  • C. Lacy Thompson