EL DORADO – If you want Linda Whatley to do something, all you have to do is ask.
Whatley will observe 50 years of service to First Baptist Church, El Dorado, in October, and it all began with a simple request. Throughout Whatley’s life – even back to her early teenage years and a string of “Will you play?” requests – her fingers have been kept nimble, as she has provided music for countless worship services.
Her belief in God’s presence through every stage of her life, and the preparation for each stage, underscores her dedication and commitment to worship. Whatley affirms that her father, Harold Wegener, whom she describes as the “most positive person I knew,” laid the foundation for her willing attitude.
“He always provided for my music lessons but told me, ‘If I ever hear anyone ask you to play, and you say no, I’ll stop,’” she smiles. Whatley has continued to answer yes long after outgrowing her father’s provisions. She believes she was prepared for every step of her career, which continued to grow as she agreed to new and more challenging positions.
While attending junior high, Whatley accompanied the choir at her church, First Baptist Church, Fort Smith. Her teacher went to Europe each summer and asked Whatley to play the organ while she was gone. Whatley complied, with another musician offering organ lessons. In Whatley’s high school, a devotional over the public address system began each day with her organ accompaniment. She even played “Pomp and Circumstance” at her own high school graduation, graduating with honors.
Whatley studied music under professor of music Evelyn Bowden at Ouachita Baptist University for a semester, then transferred to the University of Arkansas to pursue a business degree.
The most serious sequence of requests for her to play began when Whatley, at age 22, and her husband, Alan, moved to El Dorado. They were invited to a newcomers’ banquet at First Baptist. Staff member Joe Santo suggested, “Since you’re coming to the banquet, would you mind playing the piano?” Whatley graciously agreed. When he invited her to accompany the junior and senior high choirs, she once again agreed. As they were attending Wednesday nights, Santo again requested that Whatley accompany during prayer meeting. Whatley headed toward the upright. While the sanctuary underwent extensive renovations, Whatley practiced at a nearby Presbyterian church, with her 2-year-old daughter, Kim, in tow.
Santo also persuaded Whatley to serve as associate organist, playing weddings, funerals, revivals and special meetings. The choir was going to perform Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah,” and Linda would need more practice time than could be managed toting a preschooler to a sanctuary. But the young married couple couldn’t afford a piano. Bensberg Music Company in Camden rented and delivered one to the Whatley home for three months at a cost of $60. Whatley’s fingers kept pace.
Soon, former First Baptist pastor Mark Coppenger asked Whatley to serve as the organist. At the time, Whatley felt called to piano accompaniment and had no personal vision for playing the organ. She agreed to serve a three-month term while the official organist was away. Once again, at the end of this period, Whatley felt led to assume this position and has held it ever since. Along the way, Whatley was asked to serve as director of the Child Learning Center. She faithfully served there for 35 years. She earned an associate degree in early childhood education at South Arkansas Community College to strengthen her leadership.
Whatley’s dedication to saying yes through the years took a physical toll. She has undergone four surgeries on her hands. At times, Whatley wondered if she’d ever play again.
As she prepared mentally and spiritually for these procedures, she became sensitive to the many references to the hand in the Bible. Whatley experienced healing, and while she feels it’s not the same now, who can tell? What the congregation hears is the love of God pouring through her fingers.
When current First Baptist minister of worship Dusten Melear asked Whatley about her favorite arranger, she responded that she “lucked into really enjoying a variety of music, as long as it’s tasteful.” Her favorites tend toward classical showstoppers like Chopin, Bach, and Liszt’s “Liebestraum.”
First Baptist will celebrate Whatley’s 50-year milestone Sunday, Oct. 6. Dove Award- winning producer, arranger and Sandi Patty accompanist Jay Rouse will lead morning worship at 10:15 a.m. Rouse’s commissioned composition for Whatley will be performed at a community service at 5:30 p.m. in the sanctuary. A reception will follow at 6:30 p.m. in the church’s 2fifty2 building. The public is invited. First Baptist is located at 200 W. Main St., in El Dorado.
Sarah Shell Teague is a member of First Baptist Church, El Dorado.