BRIDGEWATER — It was just past dawn Tuesday, but the sun wasn’t shining through the clouds that hung over Bridgewater as commuters in their cars funneled down Main Street.
Yet, the sun shone through the beaming smiles of several town residents, waving and holding signs outside the Dairy Queen to bring joy to the travelers headed to school and work.
The townsfolk are filling in for one of their own — former councilman and local legend Carlyle Whitelow — who is in the hospital with COVID-19.
“Since he’s not out here, we’ll hold the torch till he can get back out here,” Brenda Johnson said.
On Oct. 4, Whitelow, 89, was oddly absent, Donna Pettit said in between her waves and exclamations of “Good morning” at the passing traffic. Children and adults alike waved, smiled and honked back at the small crowd filling in for Whitelow on Tuesday morning.
“Rain, snow did not ever stop him,” Pettit said.
But since his absence, residents and Whitelow’s fellow Rotarians have been stepping up to spread the joy Whitelow brings to many on their morning commute.
Whitelow has been standing outside the Dairy Queen waving to morning travelers for over a decade, according to his lifelong friend, Glen Thomas, who was outside Dairy Queen Tuesday morning with a sign that read “Get Well Coach Whitelow.”
Before taking up his spot outside the Dairy Queen, Whitelow could be found jogging or biking around the town in the mornings, waving and picking up trash. As he got older, he leans against his blue car parked in the DQ lot while he waves, according to Pettit.
In a 2018 interview, Whitelow said he started his morning ritual at DQ after a now-retired bus driver, Bobby Shank, had asked Whitelow to come and wave along his route since he missed seeing Whitelow riding his bike through the town each morning. From there, he took up his station, bringing smiles to travelers in the Bridgewater morning rush hour.
Whitelow has been gone since he went to the hospital after a fall, and while there, health care workers had found he had COVID-19 and now is battling COVID pneumonia, according to Thomas.
He said family and friends are asking the community to pray for him, and to get vaccinated.
“Just think about the number of people that come by here and wave,” Thomas said as a Rockingham County school bus passed by. “Not many people would do that — sit here every morning and wave to people.”
Whitelow and Thomas grew up together in the southern Rockingham County town throughout the era of segregation.
“It was unusual that Blacks and whites could get together back in those days and just enjoy each other’s company,” Thomas said. “We’d get out on the playgrounds and and play ball together.”
Whitelow joined the Army and then became the first Black athlete in the state to play at a majority white school when he was a running back for the Bridgewater College Eagles in 1955 while studying at the college. He also ran track and played basketball before he graduated in 1959.
His parents had worked at BC as cooks, according to Thomas.
Whitelow later earned a master’s in supervision and administration from the University of Virginia in 1969 after teaching in Staunton. He returned to BC, where he taught until he retired in 1997.
That year, the hometown hero was inducted into the BC Hall of Fame, and nearly 20 years later, in June 2018, the town named Whitelow Park after him.
Pettit said Whitelow sets an example for children.
“He’s a good example, especially in the world today with all the hate is going on and bullying and everything,” Pettit said.
The kids Whitelow waves to head to school, where his good cheer still follows, according to an administrator.
“People wanting to pick up the torch while Carlyle is unable is a real testament to the impact he has had on our community here in Bridgewater,” Sara Hammill, principal of John Wayland Elementary School just north of Bridgewater, said in a Tuesday email. “His care and positivity set a wonderful example for our students and adults alike.”
Bill Kyger, Rockingham County supervisor and a friend of Whitelow, said Monday he would be out there with the Bridgewater residents too, but he’s at a National Association of Counties conference in Utah.
“The community is rallying around him to pick up where he can’t do so much right now, so everybody else is chipping in,” Kyger said.
Thomas said well-wishers have visited Whitelow at Sentara RMH Medical Center and they exchanged something well-known to Whitelow — a wave of friendship and support.