Wayne Whigham had just one son but is being remembered as a father to many.
The Montgomery County Public Schools community is mourning the loss of Whigham, 63, who died suddenly March 14 after suffering complications from a surgery meant to address ongoing health issues.
Whigham, of Silver Spring, was director of the school system’s appeals and transfers team, which works with students, principals and families to find solutions for students who have been suspended or expelled.
His family, friends and colleagues are remembering him as a good man who gave everyone a chance, a “perfect” father and husband who was always there, and a humorous guy with boundless energy who would always bring the room to laughter.
He touched many. More than 650 people showed up at his wake last week, and more than 100 signed an online “Legacy” obituary through The Washington Post.
Whigham started with the school system in 1975 as a teacher, then served in other administrative roles, such as principal of Martin Luther King Intermediate School, Bethesda Chevy Chase High School and Seneca Valley High School, before moving to central office.
His son, Christopher Whigham, and wife of 33 years, Mary Beth Waits, believe Whigham’s overall outlook gave him a close connection with so many people.
Whigham believed every child should have a chance to succeed, and every boy should have a man to guide them, his family members said.
“Too many men have come up to me in recent weeks to tell me how much my dad meant to them as a father because they didn’t have one,” said Christopher Whigham, 28.
As the leader for the appeals team, Whigham often faced difficult children, angry principals and parents ready to sue, Waits said.
He was known for his ability to be blunt with students and hold them accountable, according to fellow employees and friends.
Principals who knew Whigham well talked about his uncanny ability to get through to students who were often the toughest or who needed the most help.
“Wayne always found a way to work with kids and love them, despite the fact that we don’t always like them at a given moment,” said Christopher Berry, principal of James Hubert Blake High School.
The job was his ministry, Waits said.
“It would have been hard and stressful for anybody by Wayne Whigham,” Waits said.
Berry said he was the most “kid-centered” administrator he knew.
“He was all about creating opportunity for kids who had got themselves in a jam and needed some love and kindness to get them through,” said Marc Cohen, principal of Seneca Valley High School.
Whigham was a mentor and friend to Berry, Cohen and many other principals in the system. Cohen said he could have been considered the “mayor of central office.”
He was known for “keeping it real,” Berry said.
“There was very little pretention about him,” he said. “He was always who you saw it to be.”
Many talked of his ability to poke fun in every situation.
“He said the most outrageous things that only he could get away with,” Waits said. “People would say, ‘Man, Wayne, only you.’”
He was also a self-trained guitarist, had a deep appreciation for music, and made the best barbeque sauce, his friends said.
People remembered him not only for his personality, but for the lasting effect he made on the school system in leadership, discipline and race relations, said Fred Evans, past principal of Gaithersburg High School.
Whigham, who was black, had a desire to see equal discipline for all students, Evans said.
A higher percentage of black students, specifically boys, receive out-of-school suspensions, compared to their peers. In Montgomery County in 2012, about 5.7 percent of black students received out-of-school suspensions, compared to less than 3 percent of students in other racial subgroups, according to the school system’s safety at a glance report.
Whigham saw that some of the problem was in principals’ attitudes with addressing students of different races, Evans said.
“What too often happens is we come down harder on certain groups, mainly African-American and Hispanic males,” Evans said.
Whigham set out to see that every student had opportunities, regardless of color, Waits said.
“He always felt like — who speaks for them?” Waits said.
Whigham was leading the charge in dealing with changes to the school system’s discipline policies coming down from the Maryland State Department of Education. The department wants all local systems to eliminate the racial disparities within three years and to shorten long-term suspension to less than 10 days.
Whigham was mentioned in a Gazette article last school year after talking about the changes at a meeting.
While Whigham felt like the policies were too sweeping, he saw the changes as a chance to better train principals, Waits said.
Whigham was “a true social justice warrior in every sense of the word,” Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said.
Berry and Cohen said they attempt to model his leadership at his schools.
The school system will realize how irreplaceable he is, Waits said.
She said she’ll miss her dapper, broad-shouldered, funny husband, with whom she shared stories and laughter.
“He was an amazing man,” she said.