BRIDGEWATER — Bridgewater managed to keep a secret from one of its most cherished residents over the last two months.
On Tuesday, Ellen Layman, 75, of Bridgewater, picked up her fellow Rotarian, 83-year-old Carlyle Whitelow, just after 6 p.m. to take him to a dedication ceremony for the park off West Dry River Road.
Whitelow didn’t plan on going, but after his close friend offered to drive him in her new car, he conceded.
Before several dozen people, staff and Town Council members unveiled the new sign for Whitelow Park, dedicating it in his honor.
“His first words were, ‘This is awful. I don’t like this kind of recognition,’” Layman said. “But I think he really enjoyed it once he got over the shock of it and really was appreciative of the real affection that I guess just about everybody in this town has for him.”
Many in Bridgewater know Whitelow as the man who stands along North Main Street by the Dairy Queen every weekday morning, waving to children on their way to school and adults on their way to work.
He started his ritual about eight or nine years ago, he said, after now-retired bus driver Bobby Shank missed seeing him biking one day and requested he come out and wave along his route. It soon blossomed into a daily morning greeting for any and all traveling along North Main Street between about 7:30 and 8:15 a.m.
Whitelow, a lifelong Bridgewater resident, Bridgewater College graduate and Army veteran, said Friday that he did not have the slightest inkling of the town’s intentions. He could not believe so many people knew about it and were still able to keep the secret.
“I said, ‘I can’t believe this,’” Whitelow said. “I said, ‘Why did you do this to me? Why did you do that?’”
But then it hit him what the dedication really meant. To Whitelow, the dedication was not to honor him, but to honor his family.
Bridgewater had always treated his parents, Muriel and Faith Whitelow, and brother Alfred Whitelow with respect, Carlyle Whitelow said. Even during segregation, he said, he didn’t feel discriminated against in town, though that was not always the case outside the community.
“The town had been very loving to all of my family and had respected us with greatness,” Whitelow said. “[It’s] just overwhelming that they think enough of the Whitelow family to do something of this nature.”
Mayor Ted Flory, who has known Whitelow for about 50 years, said the dedication seemed like a nice thing to honor someone who “has been such an important member of our community for so long.”
“Bridgewater is filled with folks that are like that,” he said, “but he’s one that just stands out.”
Whitelow was, however, slightly upset by his attire Tuesday. He wore a windbreaker to the dedication because it was held in a park, but normally wears a suit and tie to every Bridgewater Rotary Club meeting, which are held on Tuesday evenings.
About two months ago, town staff began brainstorming names for the nearly 5-acre park, Town Manager Jay Litten said.
Once someone suggested dedicating it to Whitelow, a former Bridgewater College professor and football, basketball and tennis coach, everyone was in instant agreement, he said. The main challenge was keeping the secret until the dedication.
While Whitelow is famous for his morning greetings, he used to jog or bike all over town, always taking time to greet or chat with people, Litten said.
“Carlyle has touched nearly every Bridgewater citizen in one way or another, through coaching at Bridgewater College certainly,” he said, “but more importantly, just by being a friendly face that we counted on seeing day after day.”
Layman said Whitelow has always been a giving member of the community, calling him “Bridgewater’s unofficial ambassador.” Many years ago, when Whitelow coached at Bridgewater College, he would open the school’s gym up on Saturday mornings for local children to come play.
He also takes people to doctor appointments, she said, and visits people in hospitals and nursing homes. When he’d run and bike around town, he was always on the lookout for small ways to help out, even just moving people’s newspapers out of the rain.
He’s well-known for his thoughtful, heartfelt and encouraging letters, having written enough over the decades to keep the post office busy, Layman said.
“He’s just a selfless, loving person,” she said, “who gives of himself in any way that he can.”