Kay R. Whitmore walks life's tightrope with admirable ease.
As president and executive officer of Eastman Kodak Company, he oversees a multi-billion-dollar international corporation. He just spearheaded the $5.1 billion purchase of Sterling Drug, makers of Bayer Asprin, closing the deal Feb. 21. He also has worked on a community coalition aimed at giving inner-city youths in Rochester, N.Y., better educational opportunities.In the Church, he's president of the Rochester New York Palmyra Stake. At home, he's a husband and father of six children who are all active in the Church.
"I really don't know how he does it," said Bishop Troy E. Hall of the Pittsford, N.Y., Ward. "He's booked several months in advance, but there are periods of time that he's open for appointments. Some people with his responsibilities might say, `I'm too busy,' but he finds the time."
On Feb. 18, the 55-year-old stake president took time out from a family vacation to talk to BYU students as part of an executive lecture series. At the end of each of his two lectures, he was surrounded by students and deftly handled questions dealing with politics, religion and business.
Pres. Whitmore, wearing a tailored blue suit and red tie, emphasized important points with a motion of his arm. A pair of glasses were always in his hands but he rarely wore them, using them, instead, like a music conductor would wave a baton.
"He can be in a group of people and be as comfortable talking to the president of a corporation as he is talking to a blue collar worker," Bishop Hall said. "You would never know he was Kodak's president."
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Rex Grange and Ferrol Smith Whitmore, Kay Rex Whitmore grew up in the Salt Lake Valley. As a youth, he was "retiring," his father said. He was a "handsome boy" who had a few close friends and struggled in school.
The family moved to Phoenix, Ariz., just before Kay started high school. When he registered at the new school, the registrar thought Kay Rex was a girl's name and assigned him a girl's locker. It devastated him, his father said, but he bounced back pretty well - an ability he would later say was imperative to success in the business world.
Every summer from the time he was 14, Kay worked at a summer job, arranged by his father. One summer, he stayed with an aunt and worked at a fish cannery in Alaska. Another vacation was spent staffing a dude ranch near Snowflake, Ariz. His father said Kay returned from each a little more self-confident and independent. But the one affecting him the most was working at a slaughterhouse in Draper, Utah.
"It gives you a perspective on the world when you kill pigs every day," Pres. Whitmore said. "We live in a complex society where all the jobs are specialized. I learned that no matter how sophisticated this world becomes, there are some basic fundamentals in life."
Kay's boss at the slaughterhouse, Dale T. Smith, was a strong, hard-working man, his father said. When Kay returned that summer, he acted more like a man.
After he graduated from high school, his family moved back to Salt Lake City and he enrolled at the University of Utah. He wrestled with his college studies, and his sister remembers him often coming home discouraged.
"I really drifted into college," he said. "I went into chemistry because I liked my chemistry teacher in high school."
In 1953, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Germany. He was a different man when he returned.
"Up to the time he was drafted, he had never been a good reader," his father said. "In Germany, he taught himself to read and read well. He learned to go to operas and to go out and eat different foods. When he came back from Germany, he was pretty well developed."
He returned in 1955 and met Yvonne E. Schofield, his sister Geri Hooker's favorite gym teacher.
"One day she [her teacher] happened to see his picture in my wallet," Sister Hooker related. "She said, `Oh my, who is that?'" I wrote him and told him I had this teacher he might be interested in getting acquainted with. But he never responded. Then after he got home, he said, `Where's this girl you wrote to me about?'"
He asked Yvonne out, and they became engaged Feb. 14, 1956. "I remember the date," Sister Hooker noted, "because he asked me whether he should give her one rose or a dozen." She replied "a dozen." They were married June 6, 1956 in the Salt Lake Temple.
After his Army service, Kay Whitmore attacked the books in a way he had never done in the past. He graduated from the University of Utah with honors and was hired by Kodak in 1957. He hasn't forgotten what it's like to struggle in school and works to help disadvantaged youths.
At Kodak, he worked as an engineer in the film services division from 1957-1962. At that time, he was offered a narrow, risky position in the heart of the company as a product engineer in the film emulsion division. He turned it down.
"Fortunately, the man who hired me at Kodak . . ., came to me and said, `You just made a serious mistake. You had a magnificent opportunity and you turned it down,'" Pres. Whitmore recalled. "I rushed back and took the job."
That, he said, was the first of two times in his career that someone would intervene to help him. Five years later, after tiring of the job in the "core" of the company, he located a position in Kodak's marketing division.
"Before I accepted the marketing job, I checked to see if my judgment was right," he said. His immediate boss didn't know if he were making the right decision, and he didn't want to ask the next two men up the line, so he went to an executive four levels above him and asked if he were doing the right thing. The man said he didn't know, but would find out and tell the young engineer what he should do.
"A week later he called me and said, `Don't take the job,'" Pres. Whitmore remembered. "Six months later, that same man asked me to be a part of a team that would build a film-making factory in Guadalajara, Mexico."
His family was young and his wife pregnant, but without question "it was the opportunity of a lifetime to create something from a cornfield in Mexico."
When he returned to Rochester two years later, Pres. Whitmore climbed quickley. After earning a master's degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1974, he advanced regularly until 1983, when he was elected president of the company.
Looking back, Pres. Whitmore said he moved up because he had the ability to pick out the most important things and work on them first, handle several projects at one time and get jobs done.
During his business career, however, he didn't deviate from a decision he and his wife made when they first married to stay active in the Church and serve wherever called. Church jobs came fast in the fledgling units of Rochester at the time. He has been "a counselor to everything," a bishop, high councilor and regional representative. As stake president, he has made the youth programs a top priority and remains active in Scouting.
Despite his work and Church responsibilities, Pres. Whitmore said his family has been and always will be his first priority.
"He has been very involved with the family," said daughter Suzanne Whitmore Jensen. "When we moved to Boston, so he could got to MIT, he was concerned with how it would affect the family. He talked to each of us individually."
Suzanne said that her dad and mom were a good mix. "He's the long-term planner," she said. "Mom wanted to know what happened on my date last night, and Dad wanted to know what my five-year goals were and what my major was going to be."