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Remembering Mal Whitfield

Mal Whitfield

Mal Whitfield (Veterans Administration Medical Center, Washington, DC)

29 November 2015. Mal Whitfield — Olympic champion, Tuskegee airman, and US Information Agency sports and youth officer — died on 19 November at age 91 at a veterans’ hospice in Washington, D.C.  Colleagues of Mr. Whitfield from USIA offer their memories of this unique and inspiring individual.

Mal Whitfield encouraged young athletes all over the world to do their best, often without decent equipment and facilities. His service to sports possibly inspired some of the marathon runners from Africa who have gone on to set records in a long line of marathon races in our country and around the world. He possibly inspired young boys and girls to take up soccer, field hockey, and different track and field disciplines that have helped them escape poverty and rise to national and international prominence. He was the kind of person who put others first and encouraged them to develop their talent. I saw him in action in Somalia and the spirit among those he coached was electric and transformative.

I met Mal Whitfield shortly after joining USIA’s Office of African Affairs following my evacuation from Kabul, Afghanistan in 1979. Mal was a powerhouse among USIA’s well-traveled sports officers and I ran into him again during temporary duty in Mogadishu, Somalia where he had come to conduct basketball clinics. His experience as an Air Force fighter pilot and an Olympic athlete made him a great goodwill ambassador among thousands of young athletes in Africa and in other parts of the world. He succeeded in winning over people in difficult cultural and political environments through his athletic skills and indomitable optimism. I was proud to have known and worked with him and will miss his wonderful spirit and great sense of humor. He’s gone on to higher hurdles and greater victories.

In a time when our Foreign Service officers are relying increasingly on electronic means to reach out to others, Mal’s work on the basketball court and the running field remind us that there is nothing stronger in attracting and encouraging youth than face to face experiences. We need more of Mal’s kind of diplomacy, especially in communities where the evil propaganda of radical terrorists is trying to lure young people into deadly activities. Mal was a winner and so were those people he coached and inspired. Our government leaders and those of other nations would do well to study Mal Whitfield’s contributions to international understanding and good will.

Bruce Byers. Adapted with permission from AFSA Memorial Tributes

As an aspiring middle-distance runner in high school, I idolized Mal Whitfield. In the winter of 1954 or ’55 I went into New York City to the Millrose Games at Madison Square garden – an exciting annual track and field competition – to see Mal run, especially in the 4×400 relay. He teamed up with Lon Spurrier, Reggie Pearman, and Herb McKenley – three of the fastest runners in the world. The race, several times around a wooden banked track, was perfection: perfect starts, handoffs, running form. It was breathtaking, and, I believe, set an indoor record that endured for many years. Needless to say, I was very awed to run into Mal at USIA one day decades later, when he was in town from an overseas tour. He might have served mainly in Africa, but I believe on occasion was our sports ambassador to other regions. His low-key manner and quiet elegance reflected the way he ran, graceful all the way.

Mike Schneider

I worked with Mal Whitfield during my first tour with USIA in Nairobi, Kenya, in the early 1980’s.  Mal was the regional sports and youth officer for Africa at the time.  Mal’s responsibilities took him all over Africa, so he was not in Nairobi much of the time.  When he was there, he was based at the American Cultural Center.  I was the director of the Center at that time.

Although I was the most junior American officer with USIS Nairobi at the time, Mal treated me  with respect, as he did all of the American and Locally Employed Staff.  He was always friendly and positive.  Mal’s enthusiasm for sports and youth diplomacy was infectious:  I remember at staff meetings, when Mal announced a new initiative, he always said, “This is big; this is really big.”  Although some of us may have been skeptical at first, his programs always were “big” and very successful.  As a result, he was beloved and admired by the Kenyans and other Africans with whom he worked, as well as by his American colleagues.  Mal showed his respect for others by participating actively in other USIS and Embassy programs whenever he was in Nairobi.  Mal contributed tremendously to enhancing US relations with Kenya and other African countries and helping  the young people and athletes with whom he worked.  He exemplified the very best of the United States and the true value of public diplomacy.

Amb. Greta N. Morris

In 1984, when I was ACAO for exchanges in Lagos, the already legendary Mal Whitfield came to help promote and organize a pre-Olympic regional boxing camp, hosted at our request by the Nigerian Ministry of Sports and staffed by American coaches and trainers recruited by USIA.  The program was part of a drive to blunt the boycott of the Los Angeles Olympic Games organized by the USSR in retaliation for our 1980 international boycott of the Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  A dozen or so countries sent teams to the camp and, subsequently, the LA Games.  The success of the camp owed a great deal to Mal’s charm, sense of humor, and refusal to be discouraged by logistical and bureaucratic glitches along the way.  He dazzled and won over prickly Nigerian officials, and set the example of American warmth and openness that the American coaches emulated to great effect.  It was a pleasure and privilege to work with him.

David Monk. Reprinted with permission from AFSA Open Forum

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