SHERIDAN — Legacy. A thought-provoking, sometimes harrowing topic. How will people remember me? What impact did I have on my family and friends? Did I make the world a better place? Will anyone know my name in 100 years?
Edward A. Whitney could answer the last question with an emphatic “yes.”
A voracious reader and vigorous traveler, a death notice in the Sheridan Enterprise called Whitney “one of the most unique characters of the great Northwest.”
An editorial in the Enterprise a few days after Whitney’s death compared him to a great philosopher: “There is about his life a flavor of the mental atmosphere of which Socrates lived.”
The editorial said Whitney “had the courage to say, ‘I do not know’” and called him a man of “infinite restraint.”
Whitney was born in western Massachusetts in 1843, attended school in Europe and fought in the Civil War as part of the 52nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment before heading west, eventually landing in Sheridan in 1885. He became the second mayor of Sheridan in 1888 and built a fortune, mainly through banking. Whitney died Nov. 17, 1917, from chronic bronchiectasis and spent the last few decades of his life planning out a charitable trust foundation for education, Whitney Benefits.
Established 10 years after Whitney’s death, the trust was the first of its kind in Wyoming. Two years before his death, the Wyoming Legislature passed a special charter, giving his trust tax-free status.
Whitney’s trust started out with $750,000 in 1927 and now has about $130 million, Whitney Benefits board Chair Tom Kinnison said.
The three Sheridan County school districts appoint Whitney Benefits trustees, who don’t get paid — another aspect explicitly written by Whitney in his will. Of the 13 trustees, 10 were appointed by Sheridan County School District 2, two by SCSD1 and one by SCSD3.
In his will, Whitney prioritized granting low-interest student loans and creating and maintaining a college in Sheridan.
Whitney wanted to provide equal education opportunities for intellectuals and tradespeople, as he wrote in his will: “The aid therefore, to be furnished through the working out of the plan of this trust, is as freely offered to the hand worker as the brain worker.”
Those priorities have come to fruition. Since 2001, Whitney Benefits has given out 2,111 total student loans totaling more than $30 million, according to executive director Patrick Henderson. To apply for a student loan, a person needs to have graduated from high school or received a GED in Sheridan or Johnson County, or had at least seven years of continuous residency in Sheridan or Johnson County immediately prior to applying for a loan.
The loans offer up to $6,000 each year for four years at a university, for a total of up to $24,000, and $16,000 total for someone in graduate school. Henderson said between 15 and 20 percent of the loans are given to graduate students.
Those loans account for a little less than half of the foundation’s total spending since 2001, which Henderson said is just under $74 million.
A large portion of its other spending goes to Sheridan College. The money supports facilities and building projects and also funds about 10 percent of the college faculty, according to Sheridan College President Paul Young.
Young said the college “would not exist in its current form today were it not for Whitney Benefits.”
Over the next two days, there are a few activities at Sheridan College in honor of the 100th anniversary of Whitney’s death. Beginning at 4 p.m. Thursday, the Whitney Center for the Arts will host an artist reception, followed by musical performances from the Sheridan College Flute Choir and Sheridan College Viol Consort. Friday will include a dinner, reception and concert performed by the Whitney Center Jazz Orchestra.
The foundation has plenty of funds, but does not easily part with money.
Whitney’s board is “generous but demanding as a partner,” Young said. “They expect accountability and expect us to demonstrate results.”
The Sheridan County YMCA also has benefited greatly from initial support from Whitney Benefits. While the foundation does not currently finance the YMCA, Elizabeth Cassidy said it played a huge part in setting up the YMCA’s financial independence.
The YMCA often uses the rink and park bearing Whitney’s name for its after-school programs.
“When you look at our Y compared to other Ys across the country and what a strong community force it is, it’s because Whitney Benefits did see it as that community center and supported it in the early years,” said Cassidy, the YMCA’s executive director. “A lot of Ys just kind of died out but ours just continues to grow and prosper in our community.”
The foundation shares a strong connection with Sheridan today, but did not always thrive. It initially served as a de facto bank, and, like most businesses, went through some lean years during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
A 22-year lawsuit settlement in 1995 awarded Whitney Benefits about $65 million in compensation from the federal government for preventing the mining of coal on the Ash Creek Dry Pasture. That boost assured the foundation’s existence for the foreseeable future.
Pictures of Whitney are rare, and most show him facing away from the camera. Yet his name is seen all around the area—Whitney Rink at the M&M’s Center, Whitney Commons Park, Whitney Academic Center and Whitney Center for the Arts at Sheridan College. Despite never marrying and having no descendants, Whitney’s legacy lives on.