Margaret Sandhagen Whitmire, who died Dec. 12, said she enjoyed growing things with roots because as a child during the Great Depression, her family moved often in pursuit of employment. Born in Chicago in 1918, Whitmire inherited a love for gardening from her father, who planted a garden wherever he lived.
The family finally settled in St. Louis when “Peg” was 11, and she remained in the area for the rest of her life. As a young woman, she worked as a secretary at Ralston Purina, where she met Blanton J. Whitmire. They married before Blanton Whitmire shipped overseas with the Army during World War II. After the war, the couple, with daughter Catherine and son Richard, settled in Kirkwood, outside of St. Louis, where Margaret Whitmire would spend 50 years putting down roots. She spent countless hours volunteering while her children were young and after they were grown. Among her causes was Gateway Greening, a nonprofit organization that transforms abandoned St. Louis lots into gardens. All the while, she cultivated her gardens at home.
“She was very attuned to the natural world, and especially the beauty of the natural world,” recalled Catherine Whitmire. A story about Margaret Whitmire demonstrates that connection. The Whitmires had given their longtime church funding for a chapel with one entire length of wall depicting, in stained-glass panels, a tree throughout the four seasons. When Margaret Whitmire saw the stained-glass design, she suggested a change. Missouri is a plains state, and the winds roll in from the west, she said. The original design depicted the tree swaying in the wrong direction.
Margaret and Blanton Whitmire also were attuned to needs beyond their own. As Blanton Whitmire’s company, Whitmire Research Laboratories, achieved success with an innovative indoor application of pesticides, the couple began a lifelong practice of giving, much of it directed toward the environment and higher education. As natives of Transylvania County, Blanton Whitmire and his siblings – there were 11 – were loyal to WCU, which in 2005 honored Margaret and Blanton Whitmire each with an honorary doctorate. In 1974, the Whitmire siblings and their spouses created scholarships for students of early childhood education and special education. In 1997, prompted by a desire for responsible development in Western North Carolina, Margaret and Blanton Whitmire created the Whitmire Distinguished Professorship in Environmental Science. An additional gift funded research to determine if plant roots could naturally remove pesticide contamination from the soil of a housing development. And in 2003, the Whitmires established a gift annuity that eventually will support programs in environmental sciences and early childhood education. “We believe in what’s going on at Western Carolina University, and we feel good about our continuing investment in cleaner water, cleaner air and cleaner land, and for a high-quality education for the teachers of tomorrow,” Margaret Whitmire said at the time.
Catherine Whitmire said her mother loved the mountains of North Carolina, and that among her favorite plants was a thriving rhododendron brought 45 years ago from the North Carolina family homestead. “She planted it outside a glassed-in porch so that she could keep an eye on it,” Catherine Whitmire said. “It’s the plant closest to where she sat.”