Tom Whitfield Jr., a retired teacher, one-time sheriff and longtime resident of Harlem, died Tuesday. He was 88.
Whitfield was born in Kite, Ga. in 1926, but lived most of his life Harlem, where he was a beloved resident and active member of the community. He was best recalled for his many years teaching agriculture and vocational subjects and coaching basketball at Harlem High School.
“I’ve known him all my life,” said Harlem Police Chief Gary Jones, who said Whitfield was one of the original members of the Harlem Volunteer Fire Department.
“He’s been a well-respected man the entire time that I’ve known him,” Jones said. “He was well-thought of in the city of Harlem, in Columbia County as well as statewide because of his travels with basketball teams and so forth and the agricultural department.”
Phil Turner, a player on one of Harlem’s teams in the early 1960s, said Whitfield served as a great influence on every boy who passed through the school.
“He was not only an outstanding basketball coach, but an outstanding man,” Turner said.
Turner said between 1956 and 1965, Whitfield amassed a record of 214 wins and 66 losses. Most of the losses came during the first three years when Harlem High only had grades 9-11. After the school added a 12th grade, Whitfield went on to win 187 games, Turner said.
“We started having great success after Harlem became a 12-year school,” said E.G. Meybohm, who played under Whitfield and went on to coach Harlem basketball.
He said Whitfield was a hardworking and innovative coach and teacher.
“He was one of the first people to dedicate themselves to putting enough effort to make a first class program in Harlem,” Meybohm said.
Meybohm said Whitfield not only worked with high school students, but encouraged the development of basketball programs for elementary school children and throughout the community. He even had his high school shop classes build basketball backboards for local residents, Meybohm said.
“If you wanted one, all you had to do was ask,” he said.
According to the Georgia Agriculture Education Hall of Fame, of which he is a member, Whitfield was named State Basketball Coach of the Year in 1961.
Whitfield retired from teaching in 1980 after 31 years. That same year he ran as a Democrat and was elected Columbia County sheriff, serving one term before being defeated by Republican Otis Hensley in 1984. Whitfield’s tenure as sheriff was marred by an episode in Sept. 1984, in which he later admitted to targeting then Augusta Chronicle editorial page editor Phil Kent for arrest on DUI charges, which were later dismissed for lack of evidence.
After leaving office, Meybohm said Whitfield retired to a quiet life in Harlem where gardened, fished and continued to serve the people of the community.
Whitfield, a World War II veteran who served in the U.S. Navy, is survived by his wife of 64 years, Ann W. Whitfield, two sons, a sister, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Graveside services for Whitfield were held Friday, May 30, at the Bethel United Methodist Church cemetery in Kite, Ga., with the Dr. Robert J. Blankenship officiating.