Biographer Gives Snapshot of Sheridan Benefactor

Whitney's quote is memorialized in this display at Sheridan College. (Photo by Leslie Stratmoen)
Whitney's quote is memorialized in this display at Sheridan College. (Photo by Leslie Stratmoen)

A group gathered this week at the local community college received a unique presentation about the school's benefactor. News Director Leslie Stratmoen was there and files this report.

The man who's estate has provided so much for so many in Sheridan for nearly a century was celebrated Monday night at the place his money helped to build – Sheridan College. Edward Whitney, who died in 1917, specified in his will that the principal of his estate would be transferred to a corporation called Whitney Benefits and invested, so the net income could be used for educational purposes.

So, while seated under the painted image of the legendary benefactor, nearly 150 local school, city, county and state leaders enjoyed dinner in the Whitney Academic Center atrium while learning about the man who was for the college, its benefactor, because of his passion for education.

A surprising legacy, one might think, said his biographer Sam Western who was asked to speak at the event. That's because though Whitney was from an affluent family, spoke French and was well-traveled, there's no evidence he ever earned a college degree.

Western said Whitney was from old eastern money, but made his fortune in the west; came from a lineage of family members who married and had a half a dozen children, yet, never married and had no offspring. He came from a prominent family, left for boarding school from Massachusetts to Switzerland when he was 14, then returned to the United States at 19 to work as a cashier in his uncle's bank, which would have been a promising career.

Yet, the next time he's found in historical records, he's in West Union, Iowa, a place, Western said, that in 1872, had scarcely thrown off its vestiges as a frontier town.

But, Western said, Whitney adapts, and fits in. Then the next time he shows up, on the map, he's in Miles City, Montana, then follows the Tongue River Drainage to Sheridan, where the cattle industry is just taking off. Whitney was an astute businessman, but, said Western, the personal attribute that made him a success was his skill for knowing when, like the song says, to hold-em or fold-em.

He followed a lifelong pattern, said Western, of moving to an area, starting a bank, like he did in Sheridan, then becoming an employee or shareholder. He laid the groundwork then reaped the benefits, but always stayed grounded, working for the greater and common good. To achieve success, he believed, there must be sacrifice. And though he traveled well, never booking passage in steerage, he did not spend money on frivolously.

And he demanded that same sort of sacrifice from his employees, who were paid sparingly, and his trustees, who received no pay, so he was not an easy man to work for, said Western. But this does give us an idea, he said, of the man who wrote the will that set up the fund for the Whitney Benefits educational foundation.

It's a trust that has provided millions of dollars over the years, for projects in Sheridan, that include downtown's Whitney Plaza retail, office and residential space, and Whitney Commons, the interactive park by the local library, senior center and YMCA.

To watch the video from the Whitney Benefits Educational Forum, hosted by Whitney Benefits, go to --

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