Interview: Mr. Joseph Whitney
(Part I)


Back in the 50・s, Mr. Whitney got every student・s attention by coming over to St. Mark・s from Queen・s College, a top notch school in those days.

He got my attention because he is the only teacher I knew who could write notes covering the entire black board with ease. He did that with his enormous height, I thought he must be 6・ 5;. But that is not it, he would stand in the middle of the black board and start writing with his left hand, he is a southpaw, but then he could continue to finish writing with right hand without moving his body much. Mr. Whitney, you were such a show off!

My personal experience with Mr. Whitney was he gave me rides to school many times. When I mentioned this to him, he said he had no recollection at all. You see, this tall gentleman in a suit drove a Vespa scooter to school. When he drove along King's Road and saw St. Mark・s students who were waiting for a bus, he would stop and give them rides to school. In my case he saved me from being late a few times.

Last year he came to our Alumni Christmas Party after a long absence from joining our gatherings. I asked him for an interview and he agreed. Didn・t get around to do it until mid June I started to send him questions by email. Here are his answers.

Tom: Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood? School days? Where were you educated? What kind of student were you? Is Geography your major in college? What lead you to that?
JW: Childhood: I was born in London, UK in October 1928.   At about two or three my family moved to Gerrards Cross, a suburban town to the NW of London where we grew up and went to a private school until I was 13. At 13, I went to another Private school (actually in England called Public School) Leighton Park, Reading a Quaker school where I stayed until I was 18.  My school days were during the WWII so we saw quite a bit of bombing - the first school I was at was hit by a bomb but luckily during the vacation so no one was killed.  At Leighton Park we experienced, of course, rationing, and other hardships associated with the war but it was generally a happy time.  I think I was rather a mediocre student but eventually I did get a small scholarship (it was called a bursary) to go to Cambridge University where I did my undergraduate work.  I got my interest in Geography from my teacher at Leighton Park.  He had been wounded in WW 1 and had an injury to his mouth so he could not speak clearly.  Anyhow, he was a great teacher and inspired me to follow his footsteps.  Geography was my major at Cambridge.  Before I went to Cambridge, after high school, I had to do 2 years of National Service working in the coal mines of N. England. So I did not get to University until I was 20 years old.
Tom: I understand you are a Quaker, how is your denomination different from traditional Christian faith?
JW: I was a Quaker because my parents were of that faith. Quakers are a sect of Christianity established by George Fox in the 17th century.  They believed that people should be guided not by a priest or by the Bible but by what they called the Inner Light.  This Light "was that which Lighteth Every Man who comes into the world" according to the Gospel of St John.  So Quakers have no priests and the meetings are run by those attending not by any hierarchy.  Quakers are pacifists and will not fight in wars.  They have a strong social conscience and have become successful in business as well.  Lloyds Bank, Cadburys Rowntrees, Barclay's Bank etc are all Quaker firms. They were also scientists and inventors.  Joseph Priestly was a Quaker and so were the fist iron and steel industrialists in the UK.
Tom: I remember Erika told us that you were supposedly going to Pakistan after Cambridge but didn't. What happened?
JW: Originally I was going with the Quakers to Dacca in E Pakistan but I wasn't too keen on the missionary aspect so when the job with the HK government came up I took that since I was more interested in China in any case.
Tom: Was National Service like drafting into the army, instead going to fight, you work in some unholy jobs?
JW: Everyone had to do National Service in UK for two years. You could choose either the army, mines or farming, I enjoyed the experience a lot and learned a lot from my mining experience.
Tom: There was a time you were going to be Quaker Missionaries, was that your first career choice?
JW: No, the Quaker missionary was not really a career choice. I can't really remember why I thought of doing it.
Tom: What is Geography?
JW: There are lots of definitions but mine would be: the study of the interaction between and among people and the surface environment of the earth both spatially and over time.
Tom: Your definitions of GEOGRAPHER?
JW: A geographer is one who studies one or more of these interactions.
Tom: How to be a good geographer?
JW: To be a good geographer one has to have the following qualities, I think: " a special talent in the breast and a special vision below the eyebrows" as the Chinese critic of the Western Chamber" Qin Shengtan (d. 1661) said. What he meant was that you need a heart to feel and eyes to see to be a good traveller and geographer. We also need to love cultures and the landforms of the earth.
Tom: Could one be a good geographer without physically experienced the surface environment of the place?
JW: Yes. Many geographers, the quantitative kind, build complex computer models of spatial interactions, say of the relations between different cities and flow of goods and services between them. I feel that to interpret their models correctly they should still see the landscape where they are studying.
Tom: An avid traveler could also be called an amateur geographer?
JW: This is exactly right especially if he has that special feeling in his heart and special vision below the eyebrows!
Tom: On the subject of travel, you have travelled extensively around the world. Is it study related or you just loved travelling?
JW: Both. The places I have visited for research are also places of great beauty and interest, e.g. China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand. Other places in Europe and Antarctic, I have just visited for pleasure.
Tom: When you visit a place, do you take note of what you discover? What is your routine when you arrived at a designation?
JW: Nothing as organized as note taking. More likely I will take photos and use a tape recorder to remember what it is I have taken! I don't have any special routine. If I know people in the country I depend on them for advice as to what to see. If not, I read up about the place before I go.
Tom: Of the different kind of geographers, urban geographers, political geographers, historical geographers and bio-geographers. Which one are you?
JW: I have done all these different kinds of geography. My doctoral dissertation from the U of Chicago was Political Geography of China from BC to the present, so it was also strongly historical. Most of my other work has been in the field of environmental so I think we can add another category: environmental Geography. This would include the human aspects of soil erosion in China, waste management in Vietnam and energy planning in the Sudan in Africa.
Tom: Please give us a list of all the places you have visited?
JW: China, Japan, Indonesia, HK, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Yemen, Egypt, Most countries of Europe, N America, Mexico, Costa Rica, Cuba, Bermuda, Argentina, Panama, the Antarctic continent, Falklands and S. Georgia.
Tom: Among these places, which one is a "must visit" and why?
JW: It is impossible to say which is a Must visit. They all have different fascinating aspects. Perhaps the Antarctic and S. Georgia are the most unusual - wild, bleak and great grandeur of scenery unmatched anywhere else I have seen. It is also a place where there are no other human beings except for a very small number in research stations.
Tom: Is there some place didn't turn out to be what you have expected?
JW: Yes, the Sudan. I expected a desolate country, desert and scrub and desolate people and I found that but the people had overcome all environmental difficulties and were friendly, generous and outgoing and, at that time very liberal in their outlook. That was in the early 1980s before the Muslim Brothers had taken over.
Tom: Is there a place you keep going back that is not your "home base"? If there is, what makes you (kept on going back)?
JW: I think the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario. It has a wide range of geological and geographic features, is close to Toronto and is surrounded by Georgian Bay on the east and Lake Huron on the west. It is filled with contrasting ecosystems: limestone systems in the east and lowland bog ecosystems in the west. It is exactly half way between the equator and the North Pole.
Tom: Geographically speaking, which country is the most blessed?
JW: Almost certainly, Canada. Vast a varied country, rich resources; one third of the world's freshwater resources, 1/4 of the world's forests etc, etc. Apart from earthquakes in the west there are no serious tornado hazards but there are of course hazards associated with severe winters. The population is low density and there is no great overpopulation.
Tom: Are there geographical formations or structures that overwhelm you? I am thinking of places like Lake Louise, Grand Canyon or Antarctic. (Please give detail)
JW: I think the Loess Plateau region of China, say Shanxi province. Fantastic gorges, cliffs and man-made terraces make it one of the most startling landscapes in the world.
Tom: What would be the ultimate achievement for a geographer?
JW: To know and be able interpret every landscape on the earth's surface.
Tom: Is there a book by Joe Whitney in the planning? What would the title be? How many chapters?
JW: International Development Projects: Successes and Failures. Possibly 10 chapters.
Tom: One silly question: Have you been to Whitney, Ontario?
JW: Yes, but it is nothing special!

(Oh, how disappointing. I will switch gears to the travelling side after follow up questions on the above. )

After two weeks of mailing questions and answers, Mr. Whitney sent me this mail: Tom: I shall be away for a month in Europe after July 2 so we shall have to resume when I get back. Joe

Tom: Mr. Whitney, I wonder if we could squeeze in a few more questions before you take flight. 

(By the way. where are you going? Research? Pleasure? Could you send us some pictures with you in it during your trip?)

JW: We're going for a 500 K bike trip along the Danube. For pleasure. I will send some pictures if possible on the trip.
Tom: I reckon mankind has made some terrible destructive things to nature? Which is the worst?
JW: The destruction of tropical rainforests is probably the worst.  Sudden releases of carbon, destruction of the lungs of the earth - the forests- that absorb carbon, create oxygen and provide moisture for the atmosphere and hence rain. The destruction also eliminates many plant and animal species that have gone forever. Also results in intense soil erosion.
Tom: On the other hand, have humans made any improvements to the planet earth?
JW: The creation of more varied man-made landscapes has allowed many species of animals and insects to thrive.
Tom: Is "Global Warming" a legitimate concern or is it just an over hyped political issue? Could nature correct damage made by mankind?
JW: GW is not a hyped political event but a real threat. CO2 increases have occurred in geological time before but they are now happening in tens of years rather than thousands and this is what is causing the problem. Nature will correct the damage made by man by eliminating large numbers of people through natural events such as sea level rise destroying cities and coastal lands and through intense storms.
Tom: On writing a book, would there also be a "Memoir" in the work? If so, what would that title be?
JW: I don't think I have any plans for a memoir at the moment.
Tom: Speaking of books, there is a book by Patricia Schultz oddly titled "1000 Places to See Before You die". Could you come up with a definitive top ten list of places to see before one dies?
JW: I know the book. My ten places would be: the Grand Canyon, Lake Louise, the Loess Plateau of China, the Himalayas, Pagan in Burma, Bali, Mt Erebus in the Antarctic, Alaska, the Three Gorges Dam.

Mr. Whitney is currently doing a 500K Bike Tour along the Danube. At age of almost 80, he's biking the distance of Toronto V Ottawa for pleasure.

       Mr. Whitney on his bike in Passau, Germany

We will continue part two of this interview in August and will publish it in our winter issue of Newsletter. Have a wonderful summer, y'all.