Bill Whitney (1928-1985) was an art professor and an artist at Olivet College. His wife, Charlotte (1959-1979) was also an accomplished artist and taught art at Olivet High School. They met at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where they both earned their master’s degrees in art. Whitney joined the faculty at Olivet College in 1959 and retired in 1980. He died in 1985.
They were both considered excellent artists. A reviewer said that “The couple’s works were boldly experimental in both color and paint handling.”
In 1978 Bill Whitney was commissioned to create murals featuring Eaton County. They were to include Eaton Rapids, Charlotte, Grand Ledge, and Olivet, and were to be installed in the new Eaton County Courthouse in the district courtrooms. These were not mere paintings, but large, colorful depictions of Eaton County history. The paintings were 14 feet long and 4 feet tall. Whitney completed the colorful paintings in acrylics on Masonite panels with the help of some of his students.
According to his wife in later newspaper accounts, the pay he received to paint the murals barely covered the cost of materials, but it was his way of making a public statement and leaving a little bit of himself behind.
Whitney retired from Olivet College in 1980 and died in 1985.
The Eaton Rapids painting shows a colorful July 4 celebration with fireworks over the GAR Island gazebo. The Charlotte mural features the 1885 courthouse with a pioneer family walking nearby. Grand Ledge’s painting illustrates farming in the early 1900s. The painting representing Olivet shows pioneers arriving to start Olivet College in the 1840s.
The paintings hung in the Eaton County Courthouse for 20 years. In 1996, new high back chairs were installed in the courtrooms where the murals hung. The murals were taken down when the chairs were installed and were never re-hung. One judge felt they distracted the jurors too much, it was said, and another didn’t care one way or the other.
The Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing was approached as a new home for the murals, but due to their size it wasn’t possible; there just wasn’t enough wall space for the four paintings.
John Schneider, a columnist for the State Journal, heard about the paintings that had no homes. He wrote that Whitney’s “artistic babies were now orphans,” and had been propped up unceremoniously at the receiving dock of the Eaton County Courthouse. The artist’s widow commented that her husband would have been “very disappointed at the development.”
After much research, all four paintings have been located. They are no longer sitting on the loading dock; at some point the artistic orphans found new foster families. The Eaton Rapids painting is displayed on the ground floor in City Hall. It was placed in storage at City Hall in 1996, intended to be placed in the second-floor museum, and was forgotten. When it was re-discovered about 8 years ago, a long wall was located, and the colorful painting was hung.
Whitney’s mural of the historic 1885 Eaton County Courthouse was placed on the wall in the City Council Chambers in Charlotte City Hall.
For some reason, perhaps due to size limitations, the Grand Ledge painting never made it to Grand Ledge. It’s a scene of a farmer in his field with a steam engine which could represent almost any area in Eaton County and has no real indication on it that it is supposed to represent Grand Ledge. It has been damaged, however; sliced down the center and unrepaired but is still on the wall. It is in the ground (1st) floor lobby in the Mott Building at Olivet College.
The painting Whitney devoted to the founding of Olivet College is hanging in the fourth-floor lobby of the Mott Building, a pioneer winter scene with oxen and covered wagons in the snow.
Mrs. Whitney was happy with the placement of the murals. “They will get more exposure now than they got in the courtrooms,” she told Schneider back then.
The preliminary pencil sketches Whitney created for his murals were accepted by the Michigan Historical Center.