BY JANE BLOODWORTH ROWE
PUNGO — The Rev. Walter A. Whitehurst loved family, church and his home community of Pungo – and these became intertwined in his legacy as a storyteller.Whitehurst died on Saturday, Jan. 4, after a brief illness. He was 86.
Whitehurst was well-known throughout Southern Virginia Beach and beyond for both his work as a Methodist minister and a series of Pungo Tales books that he wrote about his beloved home, its people and, in the fifth and last volume, his own life.
“It is a joy for me to share some of the many ways God has blessed me during my life,” Whitehurst wrote in a note to readers in the final volume. “My retirement years in Pungo have provided more joy that I could ever have imagined, and for that I am deeply grateful.”
As a Methodist pastor, Whitehurst worked in Chile and several Virginia locations. He returned to Pungo in 1999 and was active in his community.
He and his wife, Betty Whitehurst, were often seen at the Pungo Christmas Tree Lighting, the Pungo Strawberry Festival and other community events.
Sometimes Whitehurst offered a prayer. Other times he sold his books to locals and visitors alike, spreading the word about the village he loved. And often, aided by his wife, he strummed a ukulele and sang “The Pungo Song,” a tune about “the crossroads of the world.”
“He was one of these guys who always had a lot of enthusiasm,” said Joe Burroughs, who grew up with Whitehurst in Pungo Village. “He had charm and personality.”
Whitehurst was the son of John Walter and Elsie Mae Whitehurst, and he and Burroughs met when they were four years old. They became lifelong friends.
They attended Charity United Methodist Church together, and they also went to Creeds Elementary School and Oceana High School. Burroughs remembers that Whitehurst was always an excellent student, and he also loved music, dancing, tennis and bicycling.
When he was about nine, he got an Elgin bicycle with a bell that made him the envy of Pungo youth, Burroughs said.
The two remained enthusiastic bicyclists, and, after Whitehurst’s return to Virginia Beach, they rode on the boardwalk or through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge together.
Whitehurst played the saxophone, clarinet and ukulele, and, as a teenager, he loved attending dances.
“All of the girls wanted to dance with him because he was such a smooth dancer,” Burroughs said.
As a boy, Whitehurst also loved church. His wife, Betty Whitehurst, recalls that his family told the story of how he wouldn’t let anyone open presents on Christmas morning until he’d held a service and preached. The table that he used as a podium is still in the Whitehurst home.
Whitehurst attended Randolph-Macon College, and, upon his graduation in 1955, he went to Duke Divinity School. After a year, he decided to volunteer for a mission trip, and it was when he was attending training
in Nashville that he met Betty Whitehurst, a native of West Texas. She was assigned to Cuba while Whitehurst went to Chile, but they continued to correspond and reunited during Whitehurst’s final year at Duke Divinity School.
After graduating from Duke Divinity School in 1961 and marrying Betty, Whitehurst returned to Virginia Beach and became pastor of the newly formed Plaza United Methodist Church, which at that time was so new that it didn’t yet have a building.
The congregation met in a bowling alley, and Betty Whitehurst recalls that they had to wipe beer off of the tables and arrange chairs when they went in there on Sunday mornings.
Whitehurst served at churches in Virginia Beach, Annandale, Rustburg, Hopewell, Bedford and Richmond. He worked repeatedly as a missionary in Chile and served as Director of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, Southeastern Jurisdiction, in Atlanta.
When the couple returned to Pungo, they built a house on the same land in Pungo Village where Whitehurst grew up. Whitehurst served as associate pastor of Charity United Methodist Church from 2001 to 2006 as well as on the Virginia Beach Historical Review Board, and he became familiar to many people because he collected and wrote stories about Pungo culture.
“He said that he never dreamed that hewould end up writing five of those books, buteach time that he wrote one, people would come to him and say, ‘I have a story, too. You’ve got to include mine,’” Betty Whitehurst said.
Walter Whitehurst returned to Chile for mission trips in 2015 and 2016 and served as a consultant for individual volunteers with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. In addition to the Pungo Tales series, he and Betty Whitehurst co-wrote Following God’s Call: Individual Volunteers in Mission.
“He loved people, he loved to tell stories, and he loved Pungo,” said City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District. “He combined all three with his historical writings, as well as with his ministry. He was a wonderful person.”
Speaking in Richmond, state Del. Barry Knight, R-81st District, praised Whitehurst’s contributions to the community, and he recalled Whitehurst traveling to Richmond to say the opening prayer during the session one year.
Knight remembered speaking with Whitehurst when a study of the Pungo Village was conducted by the Urban Land Institute, and the pastor relayed stories of their younger days to the delegate, and Knight confirmed them with his mother, and, in turn, heard a few more stories from her.
Knight also spoke about “those wonderful books,” one of which included Knight’s remarks upon the passing of his mother-in-law.
“Of course, he was always ‘Downtown’ Pungo since he had his new house built by Alan Brock Jr., and we would always see him at the Strawberry Festival and all the Charity events,” said Knight, remembering Whitehurst as a “gracious” presence in the community.
Walter Whitehurst is survived by his wife of 58 years, Betty Whitehurst. He is also survived by two sons, the Rev. David Whitehurst and wife Cherie of Bedford and Bruce Whitehurst and wife Genise of Richmond, daughter Monica Whitehurst of Chesapeake, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He is survived by sister Elizabeth Whitehurst Bergusen of Virginia Beach and was predeceased by sister Reba Whitehurst Thompson.
A memorial service and celebration of his life was held on Thursday, Jan. 9, at Charity United Methodist Church. In personal remarks included in the program for the service, Walter Whitehurst offered this:
In reflecting on my life, I wish to express my deep gratitude to God for blessing me all along the way. I am also grateful for the support and encouragement of family and friends during my ministry, including the years of missionary service in Chile and other involvements in mission since serving in Chile.
I am especially grateful to my wife Betty for her loving support, and for being a good wife, mother, grandmother and coworker, which has meant that we have served togeth-er as a team.
He dicho. (Enough said.)
Reflections about Pastor Whitehurst
Betty Whitehurst, the Rev. Walter Whitehurst’s wife of 58 years:
He said that he never dreamed that he would end up writing five of those books, but each time that he wrote one, people would come to him and say, ‘I have a story, too. You’ve got to include mine.’
Virginia Beach City Councilmember Barbara Henley:
He loved people, he loved to tell stories, and he loved Pungo. He combined all three with his historical writings, as well as with his ministry.”
The Rev. David Whitehurst, eulogizing his father at Charity United Methodist Church in Pungo:
I imagine that only now in heaven is he beginning to understand how many lives he touched all around the world. … Words are insufficient to adequately eulogize a man like my father. But, above all, I would say he is to be remembered asa man of faith, a man who loved God from his childhood, a man who served God faithfully all his life. This church had such a big part in that, where he was baptized, where he accepted Christ as his savior as a young man, where he was confirmed, where he went to ministry from this church, was married in this church. Back in 2011, we had a wonderful 50th wedding anniversary celebration here in this church. Thank you for the part this church family has had in his life.
The Rev. David Ryu, senior pastor at Charity United Methodist Church:
I can hear him now. ‘Wait. Do you have a moment? I would like to tell you a short story.’ Then he would preface it by saying, ‘Well, it might be a bit long, but I will try to shorten it.’ Well, Walt, we will forever miss your stories, your jokes, your black little book that had all the dates of every appointment that he would make, the words of affirmation, the gentle smile, and those bear hugs that so many found comforting. Rest in peace, sir, and we’ll see you again soon.
Bishop Hasbrouk Hughes, a longtime friend who first met Whitehurst in college:
Anything Walt did with zeal and put himself totally to the task. I was always impressed with the joy that he brought to his work in the ministry. … Frankly, it is hard for me to think of Walt without thinking of Betty. They just go together. If there was ever a team ministry, it is Walt and Betty Whitehurst.
With reporting in Richmond by John Doucette.
© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC