Seminole County recently lost one of its most memorable community servants. Join us as we pay tribute to a teacher, commissioner, husband, and father who never lost his passion for helping others.
Ask anyone who knew Sanford’s Herbert “Whitey” Eckstein, and they’ll tell you his was a life teemed with perseverance, compassion, and grit. Known for his love of sports and a strong commitment to family and the community, Whitey lived more than 50 years not knowing if he would be alive when the sun came up the next day
Diagnosed with glomerulonephritis, a rare kidney disease, during a physical for his appointment to West Point at age 17, Whitey was told by doctors he would not live past 40. Whitey recently passed away in June at age 73, ironically not from kidney failure, but lung and brain cancer.
“He lived his life with a sense of urgency,” says his wife Pat, who exchanged rings with Whitey in 1968. “As a commissioner or a teacher, if someone needed help, it would be done that day. Whatever it took.”
Pat says she had no idea how many people Whitey actually helped along the way until more than 500 well-wishers descended on his memorial service. People kept telling Pat how much Whitey had assisted them with one thing or another.
“He didn’t come home and talk about it,” she recalls. “But he thrived on it. He loved that he was making a difference.”
Whitey served his community for decades, first as a teacher for 10 years at Sanford’s All Souls Catholic School, where both he and Pat began their teaching careers. He taught at Seminole High School for more than 20 years and coached the boys’ golf team. The University of Florida graduate served as a Sanford city commissioner from 1987-2003 and was appointed to the Sanford Airport Authority. After kidney failure forced Whitey to retire from teaching and the city commission, his sense of community service never waned. He ran for mayor in 2005, barely losing in a runoff only months before he received a kidney transplant.
In honor of his service, a renovated park was renamed the Herbert “Whitey” Eckstein Youth Sports Complex.
Larry Dale, former CEO of the Sanford Airport Authority, says when he became mayor of Sanford, it was Commissioner Eckstein he wanted as his second in command.
“Whitey was well-liked and told it like it was,” Larry remembers. “He was a great friend and a good family man. I don’t know if there is a better father out there.”
At home, Whitey expected 100 percent effort without complaining or pouting, an example he set despite his own health challenges.
“That’s the Eckstein way,” says Pat. “Always do your best. No excuses.”
“He didn’t believe in excuses,” says Robbie Robertson, who served on the Airport Authority with Whitey. Robbie, a friend for more than five decades and 10 years Whitey’s junior, says he watched how Whitey raised his boys, and when Robbie had his own family, he followed Whitey’s lead.
“When his kids would get upset with each other, Whitey would make them hug it out,” Robbie remembers. “I had three boys, and they are lifelong friends because of what I learned from Whitey. Be strict, but fair. He was an inspiration on how to be a father.”
“His family is his legacy,” adds Pat. “His legacy is that his family are all good people.”
Born Herbert Heinz Eckstein on May 24, 1945, to German immigrants, Whitey spoke German as a child, learning English in school. In a society still reeling from the effects of World War II, German-Americans were not the most welcome immigrants to settle in the Northeast. After Whitey’s parents divorced, his mom moved them from Bloomfield, New Jersey to Manhattan, and she used her child support and money earned as a cleaning lady to send Whitey to St. Ann’s Academy, a private school in the East Village.
Damon Pouyat, who retired to Vero Beach 12 years ago and spent many of his golden years with Whitey, met his friend at St. Ann’s in the third grade.
“He never changed,” says Damon. “As a kid, he always wanted people to do well, to exceed. And with all that he went through his entire life, he never complained.”
Damon says it was the boys’ basketball coach at St. Ann’s, Lou Carnesecca, who would go on to a famed career as a coach at St. John’s University, who coined the nickname Whitey. The coach was trying to get the attention of the fair-haired kid across the court and yelled, “Hey Whitey!” From that point forward, the boy from New Jersey would never be known as Herbert again.
“He hated the name Herbert,” laughs Pat. “Whitey has said the day he got his nickname was the day he became an American.”
Although Pat and Whitey would not meet for years, they were destined to be together. They were both born at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey, and both baptized at the same nearby church. Both families coincidentally moved to the same street, Park Lane in DeBary, when they were kids.
That’s when Whitey’s life took a sharp turn.
Shortly after moving to Florida, Whitey’s mother suddenly died. He moved in with his aunt and uncle, but sadly, his uncle died soon thereafter. Then came yet another major blow: Whitey’s kidney disease diagnosis.
But in the midst of all this turmoil, a light came into Whitey’s life. The year his mother passed away, Whitey met a younger Italian girl named Pat Biondi.
“Our first date was October 10, 1961,” says Pat. “His best friend was having a birthday, and people were telling him to take me to the party.”
Seven years later, they would marry. Fifty years later, they – and the entire Seminole County community – would have to say goodbye.
Kidney disease and the Eckstein family go hand-in-hand. In a sense, that’s where they gain so much strength to persevere.
Only two of Whitey and Pat’s children were spared, Rick and David Eckstein, both of whom would go on to play Major League Baseball. David most famously earned MVP honors in the 2006 World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The disease was passed down to the Ecksteins’ other three kids – Susan, Ken, and Christine – and it is affecting the third generation of Ecksteins, as well. Susan was the first to require a kidney transplant; Pat donated hers in 1988.
Two years later, Ken and Christine received transplants. After Ken’s new kidney had run its course, Rick stepped in. Susan, still beating the odds with her mother’s kidney, will soon need another transplant, and David says he will be the donor.
Whitey also beat the odds by lasting 60 years before receiving his only transplant. His life-saving kidney was donated by a family friend who went to law school with Ken. As Whitey lived out his last days in June, his grandson was in the hospital receiving his new kidney.
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