Those who spend time with RK Whitehead, the Gainesville Rotary Club’s Man of the Year, know that there’s more to him than running a metal die casting company.
Whitehead divides his time between overseeing the Chicopee Woods Area Park Commission, chairing the Northeast Georgia Health System Board of Trustees and running marathons across the nation.
To say that engineering comes naturally to the Whitehead family would be selling them short.
Whitehead’s grandfather was an aeronautical engineer and his father worked as a mechanical engineer. Both attended Georgia Tech.
Whitehead’s 22-year-old son is also following the family’s legacy by pursuing mechanical engineering at the same university.
After earning his degree at Georgia Tech, Whitehead said he then went on to earn a master’s in business at Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia.
His time at Wharton was cut short when both his grandfather and father died in 1990. Whitehead said his father was in the process of opening his business, Whitehead Die Casting Co., in Gainesville before he died.
At 25 years old, Whitehead took over his father’s business, which was first established by his grandfather in 1950.
“The year 1990 was a whirlwind,” Whitehead said. “I was thrown into the deep end. Luckily, there were folks here that had worked with my dad for many years that gave me a lot of good guidance.”
Each year, Whitehead said the plant of 70 employees can make up to 50,000 different shapes of aluminum and zinc parts to be used in products for other companies.
When Whitehead first opened his company in Gainesville 30 years ago, he said he couldn’t help but notice the beauty of Chicopee Woods, which sits across from his building.
Wanting to play a part in preserving the natural space, Whitehead became involved at Elachee Nature Science Center.
Andrea Timpone, president and CEO of Elachee, said claiming that Elachee wouldn’t be here without Whitehead, doesn’t fully encompass his impact on the nature preserve.
Whitehead has served on Elachee’s Board of Trustees for 16 years, and was its chairman in 2009 and 2010. Since 2011, he has chaired the Chicopee Woods Area Park Commission.
Timpone said she enthusiastically nominated Whitehead as the Rotary Club’s Man of the Year because of his contributions to the area’s beloved greenspace.
“I can say unequivocally that his sustained influence and tireless work for Elachee has created a lasting impact, propelling us into a very solid future as a unique and valuable community asset for education, recreation and conservation,” Timpone wrote in the nomination letter.
Timpone said one of Whitehead’s greatest contributions has been his “painstaking study and work” to establish the Elachee Stream Mitigation Bank. She said this mitigation bank will help restore and reconstruct the Chicopee Woods watershed, which “will reap benefits for countless generations to come.”
Whitehead said he stays involved at Elachee to help it remain a lasting legacy.
“You’re going to be here 50 years from now, and you’re going to enter Chicopee Woods,” Whitehead said. “It’s going to be this beautiful emerald of trees on both sides of the highway. It will have development all around it, but it will forever be there for people to walk, hike, ride bikes and enjoy.”
Whitehead also dedicates himself to the hospital’s board, of which he has been a member for 15 years and chaired for four years.
“If you think about the hospital, in some form or fashion, every person in our community will interact with it,” Whitehead said. “Being there to make it the best health care system for our community and our region is my goal.”
Whitehead has also set another goal, one that’s more personal.
He intends to run a marathon in every single state. Over the past six years, Whitehead has completed 31 different marathons.
He describes his training as unconventional, only running 10 miles once a week.
“I’m only competing against myself,” Whitehead said. “I’m not competing against anyone else. You get a lot of quiet time to yourself and talk to the people you’re running with. It’s a little bit of a community event.”
Throughout his time of operating a business, running marathons and joining multiple councils, Whitehead said he’s gained inspiration from local community leaders and philanthropists, but most of all, his wife Laura.
“She’s had a tremendous influence on me,” he said.
All of Whitehead’s efforts in the community culminated at the Gainesville Rotary Club’s annual banquet on Feb. 10. Whitehead said he felt a wave of emotions when Martha Nesbit called out his name, dubbing him Man of the Year.
“I don’t do what I do to shine the light on myself, but it’s nice to be recognized,” he said. “This is a great community that we all live in. We all leave some kind of legacy, and my goal is to leave a positive one.”