Meet Acting President Richard G. Whitehead
Each morning before school, a family, descended from the original pioneers of St. George, Utah, gathered around the breakfast table for eggs, bacon and hot cereal. Each evening, they sat at the table again, not just to eat, but to discuss the day and enjoy one another’s company.
In addition to eating together, the Whitehead family worked together. The oldest boy in the family, whom they called Dick, remembered washing 400 glass milk bottles every weekday for his father’s dairy business and often delivering flowers for his mother’s flower shop.
Now a grown man and an administrative leader, Dr. Richard G. Whitehead still works hard. He still believes in the importance of strong families and he understands the need for young adults to be taught morality in addition to secular knowledge so they can reach their full potential and create good families of their own. For these reasons, Richard Whitehead and his wife, Launa Whitehead, have served together at Southern Virginia University since 2003 and continue their service as Richard takes the university’s helm as acting president today.
“We’ve elected to be around young people and be helpful to them so they can see what they can become if they’ll just make the effort,” said Richard Whitehead. “Since about 1970, both of us have been intimately involved in helping young people through administration or teaching. It’s important to help them understand that integrity and morality reap rewards in the long haul.”
In his youth Richard learned to value a variety of pursuits. In school he learned to love learning from dedicated teachers who went the extra mile. He was involved in athletics — his team won the All-Church Basketball Tournament in 1958 and placed third in 1960 — and he loved literature and the arts, especially theatre and music.
“I got a lot of satisfaction out of memorizing poems or literature that I thought had significant meaning,” said Richard Whitehead. “I achieved the rank of Eagle Scout when I was 15, the first Eagle Scout in troop 403. That was really important to me.”
After attending St. George Elementary School and Dixie High School, Richard was on active duty in the National Guard for six months. Afterward, he served in the British Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Growing up, he had considered choosing dentistry as a profession because two of his favorite uncles were dentists and enjoyed the vocation. During an experience he had on his mission, he first vocalized and solidified his wish to pursue a career in dental surgery.
“Two weeks before I finished my mission, I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter about an accident they thought I had witnessed,” he said. “When they found out that I hadn’t seen the accident, they asked me what I was doing there. I told them I was a missionary, and when they asked me what I would be later, I said, a dental surgeon. That was the first time I had ever expressed that. So when I came home, my education immediately went down that line.”
He went on to earn three degrees: an associate degree from Dixie State College, a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University and a doctorate of dental surgery from Creighton University. He said that he thinks that students should get as much higher education as they can. Additionally, he believes in the style of education he received, which he continues to foster through his service at Southern Virginia.
“I attended a school where the genius of small existed,” he said. “There were only 300 students at Dixie College when I started. The intimate relationships with faculty, at activities, in the classroom and in the community were really important. I just had so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I had been at a large university. I also believe that we must have a well-rounded education. I really like the liberal arts education. My exposure to literature, arts and the sciences was critical in my upbringing.”
While pursuing his education, he met Launa Tucker, a girl he thought was beautiful, solid in the gospel, trustworthy, easy to communicate with and fun to be around. They began dating and were married five months later in the Salt Lake Temple by the former president of the London Temple, to whom Richard Whitehead had grown close during his mission.
Throughout their marriage, Richard and Launa Whitehead both placed great importance on education. Years after she was married, Launa Whitehead transferred her credits from BYU to Dixie and completed her associate degree. She then began taking flute lessons from a talented flautist and professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
“He told me he wanted me in his master’s program,” said Launa Whitehead. “I said that I didn’t have my bachelor’s degree. He said, ‘Well go get it.’ Because he believed in me, I believed in me. I finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I found an important part of myself through my education.”
Launa Whitehead furthers her educational pursuits as an assistant professor of music and director of the flute choir at Southern Virginia. She has also taught music courses at Dixie State College, directed the Dixie Flute Choir, and served as the director of flute studies at Southern Utah University and the Tuacahn Center for the Performing Arts.
After completing a rigorous education of his own and beginning his dental career, Richard Whitehead continued to support higher education. He decided, rather than use his day off from work each week to golf, like many of his colleagues, that he would help raise funds for scholarships at Dixie State College.
“Within a year I was the alumni president and then the next four years I was a member of the board of trustees for Dixie College,” said Richard Whitehead. “I was asked in 1988 to chair a capital campaign at the college. We were asked to raise $17 million over four years. It was very successful because of the great people we had on our National Advisory Council. We raised more than $25 million in those four years.”
Because of his commitment to higher education, his volunteer work at Dixie eventually turned into a career. He still practiced dentistry one day each week, but worked predominantly as the executive director of institutional advancement at Dixie State College.
At Southern Virginia, Richard has done similarly outstanding work as the vice president of institutional advancement. He and his team have raised more than $25 million for the university in the last seven years.
In addition to supporting higher education through teaching and administration, Richard and Launa Whitehead passed a love of learning and an emphasis on education to their children. They told their children that they could attend any college they wanted, as long as they attended Dixie for at least one year. Subsequently, each of their six children graduated with an associate degree from Dixie.
Richard Whitehead said that he is proud of all of his children for embracing education: all three of his daughters earned bachelor’s degrees, and all three of his sons earned advanced degrees. One of his sons received a doctorate in genetics from Harvard University. His other two sons each received a master’s degree in business administration, one from Harvard Business School and the other from the University of Utah
When Richard and Launa Whitehead were called to preside over the England Bristol Mission in 2000, Richard had the unique opportunity to return to a country he had served in during his two-year mission as a young man and share new experiences there with his wife.
“I’ve had a love affair with Great Britain all my life,” he said. “It was a great opportunity for me to go back. I really love the British people.”
Richard Whitehead, a great appreciator of musical theatre, enjoyed attending theatrical productions at the West End of London. He has seen more than 50 West End or Broadway shows and still appreciates every opportunity to attend plays.
In addition to continuing his educational, spiritual and cultural pursuits, Richard is still an athlete. When he turned 50, he decided to compete in track and field events at the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah.
“I did that and won a couple of medals. Then my wife bought me a javelin, a discus and a shot-put for Christmas. I had the impression that she was glad I was doing that. It was one of my favorite Christmases.”
When they moved to Virginia, Richard Whitehead continued to participate in senior games, first the West Virginia Senior Sports Classic and, most recently, the Coventry Commonwealth Games of Virginia. In the last two years, he has won 23 medals: 17 gold and six silver.
Throughout the course of his life, Richard Whitehead has grown from a hardworking boy into a man with many talents, interests and capabilities. He said that his favorite accomplishments include his marriage and family, the completion of his degrees, receiving his Eagle Scout award, serving a mission, serving on the St. George City Council, being on the national advisory council at both of his alma maters and being a part of Southern Virginia University.
“Watching Southern Virginia grow and develop has been an exciting thing for me. Being here and being asked to serve as the acting president is a little daunting, but flattering. I hope I can continue the great upward path that President Smith’s administration has set.”