By LINDSAY OLIVIER
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – The air this holiday season will be a little less jolly without the presence of the town’s official Santa and all-around genuine guy Edward “Ted” Whittaker , who passed away Saturday at the age of 66.
The former North Kingstown town council and school committee member leaves behind his wife of 40 years Meredith and his two sons, Tyler and Todd, of Providence and Greenville, respectively.
“Ted was a genuine human being who lived his life to help others and always led others to do the right thing in the way he conducted himself,” said former Ed Cooney, a former NK town council president and a close friend of Whittaker’s. “He was a valuable and trusted ally of mine when we served together on the council.”
Cooney said he and had lunch once a month at Patrick’s Pub in Providence to plan their work and discuss the often complex challenges facing North Kingstown.
“Occasionally if our list was particularly challenging, he would declare it time for a Guinness,” laughed Cooney.
Whittaker served on the NK School Committee from 1990- 1994 and on the Town Council from 2006-2008. After the passing of his friend and former town council member Suzanne Henseler, Whittaker took her seat on the council to continue fighting for the issues that meant the most to her. He advocated for the building of a fire station in the Slocum area of town, something Henseler fought tiredly for and in December 2008, that station opened.
“Today is a beautiful day,” Whittaker said at the grand opening ceremony. “Sue is smiling down right now. She worked so hard to get this station, she’d be proud.”
Raymond Furtado, President of the North Kingstown Fire Fighters Association, Local 1651, said he will remember Whittaker’s numerous, selfless contributions to the community that will resonate for generations.
“Specifically in public safety, the impact of what he accomplished as a driving force behind the Slocum Fire Station will benefit the town for years to come. He was a true friend of the North Kingstown firefighters and exuded the qualities that a leader in the community should strive to emulate. His passing is great loss for us all and his family will forever have our support and prayers.”
Whittaker brought joy to thousands of children when he played Santa at holiday events, including the annual Festival of Lights in Wickford and the Special Olympics Holiday Party.
“Every year at the Special Olympics party, he would great my son Neal by his name as he sat on his lap,” Cooney said. “The smile and awe on Neal’s face that this big Santa remembered his was so precious. We keep the picture of Neal and Santa Ted in our living room.”
NK Town Manager Michael Embury called Whittaker a “regular guy” who took his position as a councilman very seriously, remembering that he was in his seat for everyone in the community.
Last November, close to 400 people came to the Quonset “O” Club to toast, roast and celebrate Whittaker’s life and accomplishments. It was a chance for elected officials, former and current co-workers, family, friends and people he didn’t even know, but in some way had impacted their lives, to come out for an evening of laughter and reminiscing.
Because Ted had been battling health issues over the last few years, many thought this would be a great time to hold an event to come out and pay tribute and celebrate the many things he had done for the community.
“I didn’t invite all these people, just family,” Meredith Whittaker said at the time. “It’s great seeing all the firefighters and past and present Town Council members here.”
Former Lieutenant Governor Charlie Fogarty remembered one Christmas Eve night in 2005 when he was at Quonset Airport waiting for a plane of troops that had been in Iraq for a year to return home for the holidays.
“All the politicians were lined up waiting for the troops to exit the plane and Ted was there in his work uniform, the big red suit,” Fogarty said. “As the troops were exiting, they walked right past all of us and went straight to Santa.”
Senator James Sheehan remembers when he got married and invited Whittaker as a guest at his reception. Sheehan said there was a stir among the children at the event and they kept coming up to him and asking if they could go talk to Santa, asking why was he at his wedding.
“The children wanted to go up to him and give them their Christmas list, even though Christmas was months away,” Sheehan said. “I said Santa likes to get a head start on the season.”
In a telephone interview the day after Whittaker’s celebration last year, he said was humbled by the turnout and it ‘blew him away.’
“Saying thank you isn’t enough,” he said. “For all those people to take time out of their schedules means so much to me they’ll never know. I saw so many old and dear friends. My stomach hurts from laughing so much.”
In recent months, Whittaker took up gardening and turned the front lawn of his Linwood Drive home into his mural for all to enjoy.
He was the senior chief mechanical investigator for the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training for more than 20 years before retiring in April 2012.
In addition to being a member on the Town Council and School Committee, he was also a member of the Mount Vernon Masonic Lodge #4, The Rhode Island Shriners, and the Newport Elks Lodge #104. He was also an associate member of the North Kingstown FOP Lodge #33 and the 100 Club. Whittaker was a member and past president of Steamfitters Local 476. He was also a member of the Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Air Conditioning Local 51 for more than 40 years, and a 20-year member of AFSCME Council 94.
“We were blessed to have known him,” Cooney said.