As the Piedmont Hotel was undergoing renovations about 10 years ago, Joe Whitaker showed a visitor around, then took him to other sites in Gainesville honoring Confederate Gen. James Longstreet.
Whitaker didn’t know who the man was, but a couple weeks later, the phone rang. The man worked for a wealthy man in Natchez, Miss., who was moving to Hawaii and sent the employee to find a place to donate his historical furniture, some dating to the 1700s and 1800s.
He informed Whitaker the Piedmont Hotel, once owned by Longstreet, had been chosen to receive a large truckload of the furniture.
“He didn’t do it to get furniture,” said Richard Pilcher, former president of the Longstreet Society, which owns the Piedmont Hotel. “He was just being Joe.”
Even upon hearing of the generous donation, those involved with the Longstreet Society felt like it was too good to be true. But the furniture came, and it now accounts for much of how the Piedmont Hotel was furnished.
“He appreciated it and he brought us the furniture,” Pilcher said. “Joe’s approach works.”
Whitaker, the former Piedmont Hotel manager and Longstreet Society treasurer, died Wednesday, Jan. 24, at age 85.
C.J. Clarke IV, current president of the Longstreet Society, said Whitaker was detailed in telling stories to visitors.
“He had a mind that was incredible,” Clarke said. “He knew Gainesville history.”
On more than one occasion, a visitor who came back to the Piedmont Hotel would remember Whitaker but not his name. Clarke said they would ask, “Is that man that knows everything here?”
After no longer managing Piedmont Hotel, Whitaker still worked there each Saturday up through Jan. 13.
Garland Reynolds, a Gainesville architect and historian, said “we’re going to miss him badly.”
“He was just always so kind and helpful and ready to answer any questions for visitors,” Reynolds said. “He was just a very kind, gentle man.”
Whitaker played football at Gainesville High and graduated from North Georgia College. He served in the U.S. Army and retired from the Army Reserve in 1992, according to his obituary.
He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Shirley Williams Whitaker, and three sons. Shirley and Joe were married when she was 15 and he was 17.
Shirley Whitaker said her husband worked in the Pentagon while he was on active duty. But the couple came back to Gainesville to run the family’s Whitaker and Garrett Wholesalers Candy, Tobacco and Notions in Gainesville. Joe Whitaker was later a warehouse manager at New Holland Mill in Gainesville, she said.
“He loved people and talking to them,” Shirley Whitaker said.
A celebration of life service is set for 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Paul United Methodist Church on Washington Street in Gainesville, where Joe Whitaker was a lifelong member. The family will receive friends immediately after the service in the fellowship hall. Memorial Park North Riverside Chapel is in charge of arrangements.
Clarke said his friend will be remembered for treating everyone the same.
“Anyone who interacted with him left with a smile on their face,” Clarke said.