Tennessee Mountain Stories

From Dirt Roads to Space

The mountain has so many traditions, cultural nuances and memories to research and record that I rarely focus on a single individual.  However, there are a few that cross my mental pathways that beg to be shared.  Today I want to introduce you to Clyde Whittaker.

Now Clyde is my first cousin once removed on my father’s side.  He is the oldest grandson of Billie and Ida Key; my father is more like grandchild number ten of thirty-three.   The beauty of a close-knit extended family is that you know a whole lot of uncles and aunts and cousins.  The sadness of knowing all that family is the difficulty of keeping up with all of them.  But Clyde has done me the very great honor of not only telling me some of his stories but actually writing them down and permitting me to share his life with you through these stories.

Clyde will turn 93 this month - this may take more than one article. Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of Clyde’s stories in his own words.  Today I’ll give you a bit of a summary of his life.

Clyde was born in 1924 in Monterey, Tennessee.  There he would grow up while his father worked for the Tennessee Central Railroad and his mother raised five children.  They had very little, they were not alone in their poverty in that day but neither did they wallow in it.  They worked.  The whole family worked.  And as I share with you some of Clyde’s achievements the resounding theme is work.  It’s what I hear when I talk to him, “Well I worked hard.”  He never asserts he was the smartest guy around, although he surely is very intelligent.  And no one would claim he had more advantages than others – if you think that please fast forward to the story about him sharing textbooks because his family could not afford them. 

I asked Clyde if his parents – who never enjoyed advanced education – pushed their children in school.  He simply answered that he was expected to finish.  Not finish in first place but just to finish.

And he did finish.  At a time when most young men would do well to finish 8 years of school, Clyde graduated from Monterey High School.  After serving in the Navy during World War II he put the GI bill to good use and completed a Bachelor’s degree in Physics at Tennessee Polytechnical University – that’s what they called Tennessee Tech in the 1940’s. 

Clyde and Ellen Whittaker.jpg

He married a local girl, Ellen Bilbrey, and together they went to Florida where he would get his Master’s Degree in Physics.

Keeping his eye on a bigger goal, Clyde turned down a job that would have paid him more that the Dean of the Physics department earned.  The family continued in Florida where Clyde worked in research.  In 1956 he was named in the “Who’s Who in Scientists in America”.  That’s already a leap from humble Monterey beginnings but he didn’t stop there.

In 1962 he moved his family to Houston, Texas to the Center for Manned Space Flight.  I haven’t asked Clyde how many people were there when he arrived but the announcement that the center would be in Houston had only been made a few months earlier in September 1961.  

Clyde worked with the men who would walk on the moon.  He met with German scientists recruited to America following the fall of Nazi Germany.  He was among those pioneers that opened the space frontier.  Yet his roots run right back to Monterey, Tennessee.