Some might say that he was a giant among men, but Ben Whitener's 6-foot 5-inch linebacker stature had nothing to do with it. Friends will tell you that in the short time the 35-year-old Brentwood resident was alive, he did more for others than most do in a lifetime, and he did it with honor and integrity.
Whitener's life was cut short Sunday, when his heart gave way after suffering cardiac arrest. Even in death the Bethel Island native continued to give of himself as an organ donor.
Recalling their earlier years as firefighters, Roman Fruehling said, "He became so happy and so proud of turning 18, so he could work with his pops."
Whitener's father was Bethel Island fire Chief Jack Whitener.
"Ben loved his father a lot," Fruehling said. "I remember one time we were working for BIMID, we were up on the levee and we were cutting this tree down, and this guy had issues with his dad for whatever reason ... this old man came out having nothing good to say about his dad. The guy had the ax handle ... well you know how big Ben is ...."
Fruehling said that Ben took that ax handle right out of the man's hand and glared down at him, causing the man to turn and run.
"You want to get Ben mad? Bad-mouth Jack Whitener -- that's his pops, he loved his pops. He wasn't a violent man," Fruehling said. Then with a chuckle, he added, "But he was intimidating just to be around."
Being a public servant was definitely in Whitener's blood. Straight out of Liberty High School, Whitener began paramedicine and fire science courses at Los Medanos College, graduating in 2002.
Fruehling said that after graduation Whitener worked full time with the East Contra Costa Fire District, quickly advancing in the ranks to captain.
Fellow firefighter Brian Helmick said that Whitener's career was cut short in 2009 when he was forced to take early retirement because of a work-related back injury.
"After he retired out, I think he was disheartened -- the fact that he wasn't a firefighter anymore. And he was trying to re-identify himself in some way," Helmick said. "Obviously, he was a family man first, but after that it was like, 'What do I do?'" It wasn't long before Whitener found another avenue to save lives -- he became a teacher.
He started teaching CPR classes and served as coordinator of the fire/EMS instructional lab at LMC. Whitener returned to school and received his teaching credentials to take over as instructor of the regional occupation program in fire science at Freedom High School in Oakley.
"Ben was a positive, engaging and energetic young man. He was highly thought of and admired by colleagues and students alike," Freedom Principal Erik Faulkner said. "Ben enjoyed people; he enjoyed teaching, learning, and growing the fire science program ... I will miss his big smile, gregarious personality, and his sincerity to one and all."
Helmick, who previously taught the course, said, "He was able to re-engage -- he poured into those kids. He dumped into those kids, he invested in the kids."
In just two short years, Whitener was able to expand the fire science program to include not only Freedom but Heritage High School in Brentwood and Dozier-Libbey Medical High School in Antioch.
"Ben was a great addition to our program this year. His emergency medical career class was inspiring many students to pursue careers in emergency medical fields," Dozier-Libbey Principal Nancie Castro said.
"He had many great ideas about expanding our program to include EMT certification. He (had) such a positive attitude and a passion for working with kids. He was a wonderful role model for our students. He will be greatly missed by the students and staff at Dozier," Castro said.
Castro said the class was so well-received by the students that they had a waiting list, even after expanding the class limit to 40 students.
"We were hoping to add more of his classes next year as there were so many interested students," Helmick said. "The sky was the limit for him when it came down to those programs. We are going to make sure those programs continue. We don't quite know how yet, but obviously as a tribute to him."
Whitener is survived by his wife Tish, his daughters Ella and Catherine, his parents Jack and RaeBerta Whitener, and sisters Jacy and Tawny.
Services for Whitener will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Golden Hills Community Church, 2401 Shady Willow Lane in Brentwood. There will be no viewings or visitations before the Celebration of Life.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that all gifts/donations go to the "Ben Whitener Family Fund" at Bank of the West (2195 Main St., Oakley, CA 94561).
Born: March 4, 1977
Died: Dec. 30, 2012
Survived by: Wife Tish; daughters Ella and Catherine; parents Jack and RaeBerta Whitener; sisters Tawny Hendon and Jacy Whitener.
Services: 2 p.m. Saturday at Golden Hills Community Church, 2401 Shady Willow Lane in Brentwood. There will be no viewings or visitations before the Celebration of Life.
Memorial gifts: In lieu of flowers, gifts can be sent to the "Ben Whitener Family Fund" at Bank of the West, 2195 Main St., Oakley, CA 94561.