Whitener, 35, died Dec. 30 of sudden heart failure, leaving behind his wife, Tish, and two young daughters, Ella and Catherine. Last Saturday, friends, family and emergency personnel from all over the Bay Area gathered at Golden Hills Community Church for a memorial ceremony also attended by dozens of East County high school students.
The Brentwood resident had served a decade with the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District, rising to the rank of captain before being forced to retire following an on-the-job injury. He began a second career teacher fire science at Freedom High School, expanding the program to Heritage High as well as Dozier Libby Medical High School in Antioch.
Fire engineer Mark Rezac called Whitener “a myth – a teacher with a waiting list of students wanting to take his class. He truly cared about everyone, and he spent countless hours helping other people with their dreams, even after his own firefighter dream ended.”
A letter from a niece read at the ceremony spoke of cherished moments with Whitener, and how his presence will always be felt.
“Now you are my angel,” she wrote, “probably the biggest angel I have, which makes me feel more safe.”
In a touching gesture designed to help Whitener’s young daughters through the ordeal, Rezac asked the girls to join him at the front of the church. “How many people learned something from Ben? Raise your hands.” Nearly everyone raised one hand.
“Now raise your other hand if you loved Ben,” Rezac said, prompting the entire audience to thrust their hands aloft.
Look at the positive impact your father made, he told the girls, and try to find someone similar. “Choose a man like your dad,” he said. “He’s the role model for you.”
Golden Hills Pastor Tim Miller reflected on his talk with the family shortly after Whitener’s passing. “I could tell within two minutes what a great guy Ben was,” he said. Whitener always said what needed to be said, and was careful to make sure his family knew he loved them and was the center of his world. “That’s extraordinary. He will be missed for sure, but he didn’t leave any unfinished business. It’s men like Ben who make you applaud and cheer and say thank-you.”
The ceremony concluded with the ringing of a fire bell, a traditional salute to a fallen firefighter. As the last of three rings faded away, ECCFPD Battalion Chief Brian Helmick bade a final farewell: “For Captain Ben Whitener,” Helmich said. “He’s going home.”
To view video highlights from the service, click here.