My wife and I were sitting in a Knoxville restaurant — this was six years or so ago — when I heard a voice in my ear: “Signal 30!” Then a big laugh.
I knew immediately who it was: Coach Whited.
Most people remember John Whited as the longtime head baseball coach at Dobyns-Bennett, the former player who returned to coach his old school’s team for 15 years.
He was more than that to me. He was my Health teacher.
It was 1962 and high school students were required to take a one-semester class in Health.
I remember four things about that class. Coach Whited was the teacher. There were no girls in the class. (They had their own Health class.) My section was the last period before lunch. We were forced to watch a film called “Signal 30.”
And that was what Coach Whited was laughing about. “Signal 30” was a Driver’s Ed film, produced by the state of Ohio, and shown to teens who were soon to get their driver’s licenses in an effort to scare the reckless driving out of them. Why it was shown in Health class instead of Drivers Ed, I don’t know.
I remember it was pretty much the first thing you heard about when you got to high school. Rumor had it that “Signal 30” was so graphic and so gross that even football players would weep. Or worse, barf. The rumormongers, who had been forced to watch it the previous year, would offer vivid descriptions of the scenes, each one more nauseating than the one before and all involving teen drivers who killed themselves in car crashes. It showed actual footage from the Ohio Highway Patrol of accident scenes. And my class was scheduled right before lunch.
Needless to say, none of us ever forgot that film.
At the restaurant that night, Coach Whited put his arm around me and repeated “Signal 30.” He knew I had written a column about it.
Then he laughed again. “You know that was a new film when you got to D-B. The one they showed us when I was in Health in the ’50s was even worse.” And then he laughed again.
John Whited died Tuesday at 74 in Knoxville where he had lived since he took an assistant coaching position with the UT baseball team in 1981. He was head baseball coach at Tennessee for six years (1982-87) and his teams were a combined 145-109. At the time that was the best record of any Tennessee coach since 1910. He’s still number two at UT in winning percentage.
He was one of the most beloved coaches in D-B history — there’s even a scholarship in his name. As head baseball coach from 1962 to 1977, he compiled a record of 294-86, winning 10 conference championships and finishing second in the state twice (1971 and 1975) and third once (1965). When he left in ’77 to get in the college game at ETSU, he was the winningest active coach in Tennessee high school baseball.
He was also one of the most decorated athletes in city history.
He led the D-B baseball team to the state championship his senior year in 1957. On the basketball team he was a part-time starter and defensive specialist.
I have the clipping I saved when he signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1957. (I think I cut it out because his dad and my dad were friends.) Young John Whited has the biggest smile on his face as he signs a contract that would send him to North Platte in the Nebraska State League and pay him $4,000.
That’s the equivalent of $32,000 today.
In fact that’s the way I remember Coach Whited, that big smile on his face.
He was a great teacher, on the baseball field, and in my Health classroom. Even if he did force us to watch “Signal 30.”
Right before lunch.
Contact Vince Staten at firstname.lastname@example.org or via mail in care of this newspaper. Voicemail may be left at 723-1483. His blog can be found at vincestaten.blogspot.com.