Sumner Gage Whittier, at 98; Everett’s man for all seasons

January 22, 2010
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It is one thing to grow up here and to become the mayor, the representative or the senator.

It is wholly another thing to come out of the Everett experience almost 100 years ago to become the head of the Veterans Administration after serving as the Lt. Gov. of Massachusetts, and to have been before that, a common councilor, an alderman, a state representative and almost a decade as a state senator.

Sumner Gage Whittier was all of those, and more.

He was one Everett’s grand gentlemen from a time long past over the many decades of his life.

Mr. Whittier died on January 8 at Carol County Hospital in Westminster, Maryland.

He was 98.

Mr. Whittier was born here and raised here and spent his summers in Ipswich.

He attended schools here and graduated from Everett High School and, in 1935, from Boston University, where he studied English, history and journalism.

He had an improbable start to a great career in politics when he won an American Legion essay contest titled: “How I Can Best Serve My State and City.”

“That was classic Sumner Whittier right from the early start of his political career,” said Everett’s school superintendent Fred Foresteire.

“Those of us who came to know him well over the later years of his life were always impressed with his capacity to make things happen, to recall the great old days of Everett’s past, and to remain relevant during a very long life,” Foresteire added.

“He loved coming back home – and he enjoyed participating in our Homecoming Weekend as he did so many times over the years. He was a quite a guy,” he said.

As a very young man Mr. Whittier had a newspaper route. Before getting into local politics, Mr. Whittier worked as a journalist for the Eagle Times Gazette in Lawrence.

He also enjoyed radio and then worked for a while in his father’s pneumatic tire business.

“Even as a young man he had the yen to get involved in local government, to be someone in Everett. He knew how to do it,” said Foresteire.

He was elected an Everett city councilor and an alderman before serving a term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Then World War II broke out, and as those who came to know Mr. Whittier would have expected, he joined up, serving in the Navy with a rank of Lieutenant.

Into the early 1950’s, he served in the state senate where he made a name for himself fighting for equal pay for women.

In 1952, he turned down an opportunity to run for governor. He ran instead for Lt. Governor and served with Governor Christian Herter from 1952-1956.

In 1956, he ran unsuccessfully for governor.

In 1957, President Eisenhower appointed him head of the Veterans’ Administration.

He later went into the private sector heading up a huge Michigan health care provider. He later served as an official of the Social Security Administration where he remained until he was 80.

“When Mr. Whittier was 80 he was more like 60 and he still believed in his future and that there was much to do with his life,” recalled Foresteire.

In his later years he reaped the benefits of his devoted service to the nation and to his community and university.

The US Senate bestowed a Freedom Medal on him. Boston University presented him with a doctor of civil laws degree.

At 92, Mr. Whittier won a gold medal in ping-pong in the National Senior Olympics.

However, he told friends that his greatest treasure in life besides his family, was having an Everett public school named in his honor while he was still alive.

“I am touched and I am honored,” he was quoted as saying when the Whittier School was officially named for him.

Mr. Whittier was many things – he was a cartoonist and a poet, publishing two books.

He kept a home in Scarborough, Maine where he rowed, swam and picked blueberries. He was also a gardener.

He was married for 38 years to the late Jessie Johnston and leaves three daughters and two sisters.

His sister Mona Jeane Somerville lives in Everett.

A memorial service was held at the First United Parish in Everett on Saturday.

Burial in Woodlawn Cemetery followed.

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