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Blood From A Turnip: How A Mother’s Love Can Transform The Life Of Her Child

Today is the day we celebrate mothers. With the growth of the Feminist Movement, the enormous value that mothers collectively create for society is not emphasized as it should be. It is greater than ever before because of the epidemic of absent fathers. You’ve probably seen the mother who slapped her 16-year-old son to prevent his participation in the Baltimore riots. Reining in an out-of-control son was once a father’s job, but for so many of these kids, there is no father around.

Among more intact families, the role of the mother has also intensified because child rearing has changed. In The New York Times, Judith Shulevitz had a piece titled, Mom: The Designated Worrier, which pointed this out:

The amount of attention that must be paid to such details has also ballooned in the past few decades. This is because of our commitment to what the sociologist Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.”

We enroll children in dance classes, soccer, tutoring — often three or four extracurricular activities a week. These demand schlepping, obviously, but also have less visible time costs: searching the web for the best program, ordering equipment, packing snacks and so on.

We fret that we’re overscheduling the children, but don’t seem to realize that we’re also overscheduling ourselves.

David Brooks, also writing in The New York Times, had a column titled, Mothers and Presidents, which pointed out that the transmission of skills and values happen most profoundly through families. Some object that it is unfair that some children have better parents than others, but it is a fact that the transmission of such values and skills helps make our society as a whole richer:

Sunday is Mother’s Day, when we celebrate the powerful ways mothers shape their children. Families are unequal. Some mothers — and some fathers, husbands and wives — shape their kin with extraordinary power, and in certain directions.

We should fight unfair advantages like legacy admissions, but we wouldn’t want to live in a society in which family influence didn’t happen.

Many of you know Ken Whitacre. He and the Pundit were fraternity brothers in college and have since thrown our fortunes together in launching PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, this Pundit and many other publications, events and other industry resources.

One of the great privileges I have had is to know Ken’s mother, Mary Whitacre. Many of you may have seen Mary at industry functions in which Ken invited her to come along. She was at the Pundit’s wedding and Junior Pundit Primo’s bar mitzvah. Nearly 12 years ago, this Pundit was on the phone giving her the play by play when her granddaughter was born and Ken was otherwise occupied.  

Over the course of the past 35 years, I have been regaled with stories of how this valiant woman, though she had few financial resources, spent her lifetime fighting for a better life for her children. She just recently turned 80 and Ken gave a speech at her party.

None of us would be who we are if we had been given different mothers, so on this Mothers’ Day, here is one son’s salute to his mother and one reminder to us all of what a mother means in the life of a child:

Tonight we have the great joy of celebrating and reconnecting with one another for a once-in-a-lifetime event! It is not every day families get to commemorate someone’s 80th birthday, but to celebrate and honor a person who is ‘off the charts’ special and has enriched so many lives is a tremendous blessing and an opportunity to give some of that love back.

In reflecting about my Mom’s life, I can’t help but think about my own life and how much of a debt I owe to her. Of course, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her, but I also wouldn’t BE THE MAN I AM TODAY if it wasn’t for MARY WHITACRE!

There are specific moments in my life that I distinctly recollect, even from the time I was four, and it was Mom’s influence during those moments that made all the difference. But before I go down memory lane, I want to direct my comments especially to the younger people here, because it is when you are young and impressionable that other people can shape your life the most…. SO LISTEN UP KIDS…

Our family grew up relatively poor, but we didn’t know it because we were so rich in our parents’ love….

When we were kids, we had no shower in our home. No Joke!

There were seven of us with one bathroom, and we generally took a bath once a week!

When Mom was a kid, they didn’t even have a bathroom! Can you imagine having to go outside to do your business each day, whether it was raining or snowing or freezing or very dark?

Imagine the day when there was no internet, no smartphones, no cable or satellite TV.

Texting, Twitter, Instagram, Email, Facebook, Google, ADHD, “Time out”, Naughty Chair… Those words didn’t even exist. (Spanking kids was expected back then… and YOU were thought to be a BAD PARENT if you didn’t spank your out-of-control child.)

Our one and only television was a Black and White set, and there were only three channels — CBS, NBC and ABC. We had a telephone with a “party line.” We had to DIAL numbers, and sometimes there would be other people on the phone having a conversation before we could even get a dial tone, so we had to hang up and try again later  or get the un-planned pleasure of listening in on the conversation without them hearing you!

The closest thing we had to a swimming pool was clogging up the sewers outside when it rained and swimming in the flooded street.

For shoes, LONG AFTER Converse were in fashion, we wore “Becker Beboppers” from the neighborhood Five and Dime store that was called Beckers — which is now kind of like the Dollar General store.

Nike shoes weren’t even available to us until we were teenagers.

Since then, times have changed tremendously. But some things don’t change and never go out of style.

When I think of all the admirable qualities that are personified in Mary Whitacre, I don’t think there is anything about her that is out of date. When it comes to what makes a person great or an inspiration to others, it is the same today as it was in the days of George Washington.

In today’s world, Mom’s character is particularly exceptional. It seems that in this celebrity-driven world, where people become famous and admired for no reason at all, a person’s character doesn’t carry as much weight as it once did. It seems OK to cheat and lie and avoid responsibility, but if you are very lucky, then, maybe, just maybe, the lessons taught by Mary Whitacre will rub off and make YOU a great person too.

When I reflect on all the things my Mom has done since I was born, I narrow it all down to Five Characteristics that have made her great by any measure. These are the same qualities that you would find desirable if you were to acquire them yourself or find in a husband or wife for the rest of your life. 



Mom is truly our spiritual anchor. But she has never been one to preach to us or even insist that we go to church! Yes, we were encouraged to go with her each Sunday, but after we reached our teens, church was really voluntary. But Mom always went to church. She has always been drawn to a HIGHER CALLING and believes that one can always strive to be closer to God.

Sometimes Mom just went to church without us. In fact, we never had much discussion about religion in our family, but the very ACTIONS of her going to church, and leading us to church every Sunday  and staying true to her faith and the Catholic principles of marriage and family — was something that was simply and subtly ingrained in us.

As an adult, I certainly appreciate this now more than when I was a kid, and I am glad Mom stuck to her faith. I am also glad that MY CHILDREN see such faithfulness in our family and hope one day THEIR CHILDREN will carry on this tradition.

I should also mention that Mom’s faithfulness was not limited to her relationship with God. It was also reflected in her devotion to her husband, Jerry, and their 30-year marriage, cut short by Dad’s untimely death three decades ago.



Mom always wanted us to live better lives than she lived.

She had it tough as a child… her father died when she was three… her mother was left to raise six kids on her own… there was even a time when the kids were put in an orphanage because my grandmother broke her arm.

We lived in the Peter G. Noll Homes Housing Projects in Newport, Kentucky, for nearly 20 years. And during that time, I often heard Mom and Dad having heated discussions about ways she could make money to help get us out of the projects. (You have to realize that the 60’s was a decade when most mothers stayed at home and didn’t work because the father was supposed to be the sole provider.)

As a first step, Mom started making extra income by staying close to home, working at the Salvation Army store across the street and doing house cleaning in the richer neighborhoods. On weekends, she worked at the Drive-in Theatre concession stand. When we got a little older and started going to school, Mom began working in the school cafeteria, all the while still cleaning other people’s houses. Later she got a full time job working in the cafeteria at the IRS building in Covington, Kentucky.

After that time, we hardly ever saw our Mom in the mornings, because she was already out the door by 5 a.m. But her hard work paid off when her dream of buying a home came to fruition in 1978, when I was a junior in high school and my sister was in the 8th grade.

Mary Whitacre never gave up on that dream, and she never gave in.

Mom never put herself or her own needs above ours. We always came first. Despite being underprivileged, overworked and often unappreciated, she never gave up on her family. She never gave in to the temptation to escape to a world of drugs, alcohol, bitterness or fantasy. She was  and is  ever-present, ever-loving, and ever a testament to all that is good.

That is extremely rare in today’s world. 



I don’t know anyone who is more capable of squeezing blood from a turnip than Mom. That job at the Salvation Army may not have brought home much money, but I sure remember having a pair of ice skates one winter when the park across the street froze over.

I also vividly recall tying on a pair of red skis and flying down the floodwall behind our house when it snowed.

Need a book? Need some clothes? I’m not sure, but I think Mom “borrowed” all these things and put them back on sale at the Salvation Army store AFTER we used them!

And that job as a cafeteria worker — well, that got my sister and me free breakfast and lunch at school.

We were too proud to go on welfare, but we sure got a lot of free things that enriched our lives whenever Mom was involved.

All of her four boys got to enjoy summer camp for free. (My sister didn’t want to go.) We also received a lot of free medical care at the clinic down the street. I have never been admitted to the hospital, but I have been to the fire department at least a dozen times. I have lots of scars from all the cuts… but never a stitch!

I also went to art school twice a week in Covington for free.

How many of your mothers cut their husband’s and kid’s hair to save money?

When I was in the 5th grade, Mom became President of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), and somehow that year, the school basketball team got free Converse sneakers  my first pair, nice and red!

I also played on the Boys Club basketball team for free.

There was never any bragging about her accomplishments, and I am not sure she wanted us to know how she got these things for us… but I KNEW, and I WILL ALWAYS APPRECIATE IT. We five Whitacre kids are all in her debt.

There is one other thing about MOM’s resourcefulness that I will never forget…   In everyone’s life, there are defining moments that shape who you become. Sometimes they are not anything momentous, but they are very subtle events that happen around you, and you just simply observe and suck it in. And you never, never forget.

It must have been hard raising four boys under the age of 10, and when I was four-years-old, I was a spoiled brat. I was a big whiner, and I was scared of the dark. I stubbed my toes, got stung by bees and scraped my knees all the time… and I refused to put on my clothes in the morning, and I was a very picky eater…

I was one of those kids who just wouldn’t quit whining… the kid every other parent hates at the mall or the supermarket … I’m sure other parents wanted to spank me! I was a real pain in the neck — especially for my mom.

When Mom was almost ready to give birth to my sister, she used every resource, every trick in the book to get me to change, knowing she was going to have an infant that would need her 24/7.

Finally, one day she sat me down in total exasperation and told me that I had to be a big boy now and help her take care of the new baby and do chores around the house. No more whining and crying, no more attention-getting antics. Enough was enough — she basically told me I had to suck it up!

Something registered that day, and it changed my life forever. I discovered I wanted to do everything in my power to step up and try to be the person she wanted me to be. Somehow, I saw myself as a leader and a person who could contribute and be responsible.

I started to dress myself and take care of things; I tried to help around the house.

One of the neatest things was the day my sister was born, I got to name her! Mom called me from the hospital and asked me what my baby sister’s name should be: the first word I thought of was Angel – she suggested Angela, and the rest is history.

I will never forget that day, and I know…. through her resourcefulness and amazing emotional intelligence… she set me on a course that has led me to where I am today.



You kids think you and your parents have a lot on your schedules today? How about having a Mom who not only goes to every one of your games and school activities, but also is your Cub Scout Den Mother, the President of your school’s PTA, a volunteer at church, takes a trip to the country a couple times a week to tend a garden of fruits and vegetables, and has a full time job on top of that!

And let’s not forget… she also cooks most of your meals and washes your clothes and cleans the house.

Along with Mom’s resourcefulness, she taught us self-reliance. She taught us how to change a flat tire on a bike, how to sew a button or fix a hole in a sock, how to make Christmas ornaments out of Styrofoam balls, bake a cake, carve a jack-o-lantern, decorate Easter eggs and re-surface a chair.

My mom was, and still is, A PARTICIPANT in our lives and in our community. She never sits on the sideline and never stays in bed. She is a doer, a go-getter, a giver…. and she does it all with grace.

There was nothing she wasn’t willing to do for us, and almost always she did it joyfully.  And she continues doing it to this day!

There is such a VITALITY to her that it is hard to imagine her slowing down, even at 80.



Of all the traits that distinguish Mary Whitacre, this one says the most. I am not even sure MOM would agree, but at the core of all the things that make her great – her Faithfulness, Stick-to-it-ive-ness, Resourcefulness, and Vitality – it is her Kindness that colors everything else.

Now don’t get me wrong… our mother spanked us. She was tough with the five of us, and she has been known to call someone a Shithead or Dipstick every now and then, but there has never been a moment of pre-meditated malice in anything she has ever done.

She has never set out to hurt anyone by being cruel, vengeful or mean. She has never ignored the sick or hungry. She has always been a great neighbor, friend, parishioner, sister, aunt, pet-owner, wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother BECAUSE SHE CARES!

She cares for all of you here!

When we were kids, the boys always got a buzz cut for the summer. At one point, I think our whole block in the projects got their hair cut by Mom, and it didn’t matter if you were black or white, young or old. It also didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl, because she’d grab the scissors just as fast as the buzzers! 

When I was a Cub Scout, one of the boys in our Den had a blind mother. Guess who sewed on his merit badges? Guess who taught the boy how to sew on HIS OWN merit badges?

A couple of years ago, I found out Mom was on the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club — she didn’t even tell me until she revealed it was too much of a strain to go to the meetings. She was also involved for many years as a volunteer for the City of Newport. She still does the gardening for the community where she lives — for free!

If anyone knows about “paying it forward,” it’s Mary Whitacre.

I bet there are a lot of things Mom has done to help others out that we don’t even know about. That’s because kind people don’t do things to make themselves stand out!

They get their own satisfaction by simply doing the right thing. Maybe they get a few extra points UPSTAIRS. Or maybe it just brings them pure joy to put others first.


For you parents and young people, I can sum it up like this: You have no idea how LITTLE things to some people can be HUGE things to others, and how the smallest ACTS of kindness, engagement, resourcefulness, persistence, and faithfulness can greatly shape another person’s life and shape their decisions enormously.

This is a lesson for us all: A moment of kindness or any of these traits, witnessed by another person who needs help, might just transform that person forever

And guess what? I can only hope that I am HALF the father that she is a mother. The things that Mom has done to shape my life… and the things she has done — and still does — to shape ALL of our lives … are the things that we can pass on to OUR kids, and OUR friends, and THEIR kids, and THEIR friends.

Mom has basically given us A GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING!

Well… this is the end of my speech but not the end of our celebration. As Mary’s fourth son, I’d like to put a challenge out there to all of you: Please think of the ways you could be more like Mom – more like your grandmother or your great-grandmother. More like your friend or relative, Mary Whitacre.

WILL YOU be the person to sew on merit badges for another mom’s child?

WILL YOU encourage leadership when the person at question seems hopeless?

When there’s a great gathering for YOUR 80th birthday celebration, will YOUR family salute you for being so instrumental in their lives?

Can you just imagine how much better this world would be if we all acted like Mary Whitacre?  


With congratulations to Mary Whitacre on her 80th birthday and many thanks for inspiring in Ken the thirst to be the kind of man you would want him to be. You are an inspiration to all who have truly come to know you.

Many thanks to Ken Whitacre for sharing his speech with us on this Mother’s Day.

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