When Marvin Youmans Whiting was a Methodist preacher—this would have been the late 1950s or early 1960s, well over a decade before he arrived in Birmingham and became the preeminent authority on its history—he pastored a church in a small Georgia town. Among the most faithful members of his congregation was a woman whose husband was, as Marvin gently put it, given to drink.
The drinking itself was compounded by the fact that their little town was in a dry county. This meant that when the husband found himself out of liquor, he was obliged to get in his car and pilot it to the county line, some miles away, to get more. Having got it, he began invariably to imbibe on the trip back home and invariably was several sheets to the wind by the time he arrived there. This habit had driven the man’s wife into a chronic state of worry over his safety, not to mention the threat he presented to the lives and property of others.
Despairing of her own efforts to either get her husband off the bottle or keep him off the road, the woman appealed to her minister. She asked Marvin for help and help she received, though it seems certain that the ecclesiastical intervention took a form radically different than she expected.
“I went to the husband,” Marvin told me a couple of months ago, during what would turn out to be the last lengthy visit we’d have before his peaceful death in the predawn hours after Thanksgiving. We sat in his distinctively cluttered apartment at the Altamont retirement home, a good hour-and-a-half into a conversation that had ranged all over the map—the Birmingham real estate boom of 1886-87, the novels of Walker Percy, the dire need for a new Alabama Constitution, the odd telling anecdote about a particular person or the city we both loved—and several minutes into Marvin’s reply to my question about his life prior to coming to Birmingham.
“I don’t think I can say that he was glad to see me,” he chuckled. “I asked him point-blank if there was anything at all I could say or do to get him to stop drinking. He assured me that there was not. So I asked if he would let me drive him to the liquor store when he wanted to go. And that’s what we did. I’d pick him up at an appointed time and off we’d go, to the county line. I sat in the car while he went inside and bought his bottle. Then I drove him home.”
Characteristically, Marvin related all of this in the most self-effacing fashion imaginable, embellished with the occasional theatrical roll of the eyes or shake of the head. As I listened, however, it occurred to me that what he did to help this troubled woman was quintessential Marvin, both a perfect distillation of his own compassionate nature and a wonderfully, beautifully, hilariously pure expression of the Christian ethic. Reflecting now on my impressions and memories of him, I find that it is that union of spirit and principle that defined Marvin for me—and which, as far as I can tell, manifested itself in all of his interactions with his fellow human beings. He was, in every sense of the word, a gentleman.
He also was one of the most interesting people I have ever known. Whether lecturing to a group, sitting for a formal interview, or passing the time of day in his den, Marvin engaged listeners through his own rapt engagement in whatever subject was at hand. The breadth and depth of his erudition might have been intimidating or off-putting in one less openly accepting of the fact that there was always more to learn, but Marvin’s conversational style was less pedagogical than conspiratorial. He was less interested in demonstrating his knowledge than in sharing it, not least in the hope that the interaction might lead to some new discovery or connection that advanced the historical record. He had a way of talking—and listening—that made you want to hear, say and know more.
This was due in no small part to the voice itself. A gentle baritone shot through with the courtly inflections of a vanished South, it was professorial yet lyrical, with the rhythmic quality of a Bach suite. Had I sat down with Marvin at any point and been told that our visit was going to consist of his reading from Webster’s Dictionary for three hours, I would have been quite content to listen.
Beyond the fondness and sense of gratitude with which he will be remembered by friends and associates, the archives of the Birmingham Public Library stand as the most enduring monument to Marvin’s life and work. He spent roughly a quarter-century researching, assessing, compiling, cataloguing, building a collection that makes the history of Birmingham and Jefferson County readily accessible in a way that it almost certainly would not be had he not come along. Marvin cajoled then-Mayor Richard Arrington into making the library the repository of the city’s own archives. He charmed owners or heirs of historical documents or other objects into donating them to the library to assure their permanent preservation. He went afield, using archival documents and photographs to bring alive the history of this community for people of all ages and stations.
He did it all because he cared deeply about Birmingham. He liked to refer to it as “this magic little city of ours,” quoting James R. Powell, one of Birmingham’s founders and its first elected mayor. Understanding as he did the city’s history—the missed opportunities, the flaws of civic character, the sins of both omission and commission that have kept Birmingham from fulfilling its still-rich potential—Marvin always delivered his reference with at least a touch of irony. He was not at all sure that Birmingham ever would be all it could, but he never gave up hope that it might.
“We in Birmingham have always had a fear of self-analysis,” Marvin told me in another of our conversations. “With a few exceptions—Arrington in his first two terms in office, Cooper Green in the 1940s and early 1950s—we have had mayors of good intention, but not much achievement. By and large, our political and business leadership has approached major issues with little courage and no boldness.
“And yet,” he added, “I cannot think of another place I would like to call home. We walk a fine line between being a wonderful place to live and a place that has been ailing all its life and has never had proper doctoring. Can Birmingham transform itself, transcend its self-inflicted problems? History says perhaps not, but while I don’t think we’re going to have a revolution in Birmingham, I do believe that if we can cultivate a gentle approach to change, built on common interests and purposeful understanding, we might just get there.”
I’m not sure I ever fully expressed to Marvin the impact he has had on my work and my way of thinking about Birmingham. Selfishly, I wish I had met him a long time before I did. Certainly I knew of him, utilized his writing and the fruits of his archival acumen to inform my own work, but our paths just didn’t cross until late in his life. By that time, the host of physical ailments from which he had long suffered—recently, when I told a mutual acquaintance asking after Marvin that he had become “pretty frail,” that person responded by observing, with all concern and affection, that “Marvin has been frail for thirty years”—had begun to catch up with him in earnest. Not long after my association with him grew into friendship, he caught me off guard one day with the out-of-the-blue declaration that if he reached his next birthday, he would have lived longer than any male in his family.
If Marvin spent any undue amount of time reflecting on such grave realities, however, it was rarely apparent to me. I’m sure he had his moments, and that he shared his deepest thoughts and fears with folks he’d known a lot longer than me. Even at that though, he remained until the end a man of exquisite kindness, culture, wit, wisdom and, perhaps above all else, generosity of time, interest and spirit. Those are the qualities I will cherish whenever I think of my friend Marvin. Birmingham is the poorer for his passing, but so much the richer for his loving presence here among us.
Services will be held 2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1, at St. Andrews Episcopal Church.