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"'Mr. General Aviation' ignored handicap to soar high in career"

Monday, March 19, 2001

'Mr. General Aviation' ignored handicap to soar high in career
Spinal defect steeled Bill Whatley's drive and need to help others
The Huntsville (AL) Times

In 1929, Bill Whatley's parents had saved $10,000 - a lot of money in those
days - to buy their first home.

Instead, the couple spent the money trying to find out what was wrong with
their first child.

The sac of fluid that was found on Bill Whatley's lower spine when he was an
infant was the first noticeable symptom of spina bifida, a congenital birth
defect in which the spine fails to close properly. There were no
neurosurgeons around back then; an orthopedic surgeon operated on Whatley
when he was 5. He closed part of the spine, removed the fluid sac and "sent
me home to die," Whatley says.

"When I survived, the doctor carried me around the county, showing off his
wares. I started school at 7 years."
The spina bifida inhibited Whatley's ability to walk; for years, he managed
with the aid of a cane. Now, a motorized scooter helps him get around.

What many would consider to be a setback has never stopped Whatley. Over the
years, he's been active in a number of nonprofit organizations: the
Huntsville Rehabilitation Center (which created an award in his name), the
Huntsville Rotary Club (through which he mentors troubled teen-agers),
United Cerebral Palsy of Huntsville and Tennessee Valley Inc., the
Huntsville Commission on Accessibility, the Huntsville/Madison County
Chamber of Commerce . . . the list goes on.

But the accomplishment he's most proud of, the one he's most known for - the
one that's earned him the title Mr. General Aviation - is vice president and
general manager of Huntsville International Airport's general aviation
facility, Huntsville Aviation, which Whatley pioneered.

As he built the business, he also managed to build a sterling reputation.

"I have not considered myself handicapped," he says, in-between bites of
barbecued chicken during a recent lunch at Greenbrier Bar-B-Que where,
naturally, he's on a first-name basis with the owners. "Because all of us
are handicapped in some way."

Born in Skipperville - he likes to tell people "I'm from L.A. - Lower
Alabama" - Whatley began his aviation career as secretary-bookkeeper for
Montgomery Aviation. His boss noticed his talent for management and customer
service and, 12 years later, offered Whatley a job launching a subsidiary,
Huntsville Aviation. He became vice president and general manager and served
in that position for 30 years.

When he landed in Huntsville, he found a less-than-welcoming environment.
The former general aviation operator had a poor reputation in the business
community and had lost its bid to continue the fix-based operation. The
company that originally won the bid reneged, and Montgomery had one week to
get ready for the move to Huntsville.

"We had to build a reputation," Whatley says.

A colleague advised him that to make it in Huntsville, he needed to get
involved in the community. At the urging of City Councilman Bill Kling's
father, also named Bill, Whatley joined the Rotary Club and other

Getting involved wasn't a burden, he says.

"I just like people," Whatley says. "I want to know what's going on in the
town. This community has been good to me, but I think I've been good to it."

He says the reputation he's built is the fruit of his upbringing. The oldest
of nine children, "My parents didn't treat me any different.

"My dad said, 'There's a lot you can't do, but there's a lot even (boxer)
Joe Louis can't do,' " he says.

He admits that when he was a child there were times he would whine about his
physical challenges.

"My mother would take me to clinics. I saw so many kids that had it so much
worse, I didn't complain for six months."

His brothers carried him in a red wagon to a school that was not equipped to
help disabled students get around.

"I just had to improvise," he says. "There were no ramps. There were no wide

Whatley says that at 71, he's the oldest active spina bifida patient in the
Southeast. And he's not about to quit making plans. He intends to get
married later this year to Suzanne Thames.

He continues to fight for accessibility for the disabled. He worked to help
the airport become more accessible, and he has served on the city's
Commission on Accessibility.

"Many places are still not compliant," he says. "Washington, D.C., is the
worst." Congress makes laws, he explains, but exempts itself from following

He also counsels families of children with spina bifida, to help them see
first-hand that the condition doesn't have to keep someone from achieving.

Whatley was active in the Chamber of Commerce for 19 years and served as
president. He also was president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, the
Huntsville Rehabilitation Center, and the Sales and Marketing Executive
Club, and was chairman of the National Industries for the Severely
Handicapped. He is also a member of the Ostomy Association and the Spina
Bifida Association.

"I never found the place where I could get off that train," he says.

Whatley was with Huntsville Aviation until 1992, when the company lost its
lease to Signature Aviation. When he retired, he was appointed to serve on
the airport's board of directors, serving as chairman in 1997. His term
expired last year.

He still keeps a hand in the industry, as a consultant. But he misses the
subculture of pilots flying in and out of the operation, a culture that is
as revealing by what he'll say about it as by what he won't:

"If I did, half of Huntsville would be divorced," he says, laughing.

Ron Hamby, retired director of the airport's International Intermodal
Center, calls Whatley "a tell-it-like-it-is kind of person."

"To this day he keeps abreast of everything that's going on in the

And Whatley will always have airplanes in his blood.

While driving along Interstate 565, he points to a Lear jet doing
touch-and-go landings.

"Isn't that pretty?" he asks.

At a glance

Name: Bill Whatley

Title: Former vice president and general manager of Huntsville Aviation,
Huntsville International Airport's general aviation facility

Born: Dec. 11, 1929, in Skipperville

Family: Fiancee, Suzanne Thames; his wife, Betty Word Whatley, died in 1998;
eight brothers and sisters; three stepchildren; four step-grandchildren

Philosophy: "Don't look back - look forward. Play with the deck that the
Lord gave you and make each card count."

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