John O. Whiteman, one of Mesa’s most devoted philanthropists, an advocate of early childhood learning and former CEO of the Caterpillar dealership Empire Southwest, will address graduates at Benedictine University at Mesa’s Second Commencement Convocation 10 a.m. May 21.

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John Whiteman
John Whiteman

Whiteman has a lifelong interest in education, with a particular interest in early childhood learning and development, but he is no stranger to Mesa’s Benedictine University. Whiteman provided the founding donation to establish the John O. Whiteman Student Success Center in Gillett Hall. The center offers student coaching, tutoring and mentoring; provides opportunities for internships, networking and other career preparation activities; hosts leadership and character development workshops; and organizes service learning and civic involvement activities.

In 2014, Whiteman organized a new nonprofit organization, the Arizona Anti-Trafficking Network, to stop the trafficking of young girls and boys into the underground sex industry. Today, Whiteman continues his work as a champion for children. He advocates funding all-day kindergarten to the state legislature, and continues to support early childhood education and programs like optional full-day kindergarten as critical components in the progression of educating a child.

“One of the most important ways we can help our society is to make certain children’s brains are properly wired during the first five years of life,” he said.

His passion for childhood learning led him to help found the Arizona Museum for Youth, now known as the i.d.e.a. Museum, which inspires critical-thinking skills and creativity in children. In 1978, he negotiated with the late Eddie Basha of the Bashas’ grocery store chain to purchase the property in downtown Mesa where the museum relocated.

Today, the museum has more than 100,000 visitors annually, primarily teachers and families with children from 18 months to 14 years old. As a result of his work in Mesa, Whiteman was recognized as Mesa’s Man of The Year in 2014.

Whiteman was also the driving force behind the creation and construction of Educare Arizona, a world-class facility for teaching preschool children ages 3 months to 5 years in Phoenix’s Balsz Elementary School District. As chairman of the Educare Arizona board, Whiteman helped raise $11.3 million to launch the initiative. One of his goals, in addition to providing an outstanding educational start for 200 children, was establishing Educare Arizona as a way to affect the state’s early education policy.

Whiteman grew up in the agrarian town of Pendleton, Ore., where he graduated from Pendleton High School. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Sociology from Arizona State University and pursued postgraduate studies in Business at Arizona State University, Indiana University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After working nights at his family’s business, Empire Southwest, he went on to hold other positions in many operational areas. He steam cleaned parts and machines, swept floors, sorted, stocked and sold parts, and even flew a small plane to deliver parts to rural Arizona towns. He sold machines to owner-operators and to large multinational companies. His dedication to Empire Southwest spans more than 40 years, including eight years as CEO and chairman.