The 99th Summer Meeting of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) will take place June 28-July 2 in Chicago, and Illinois, the host state, has planned a special gift to kick off the NFHS’ Centennial year. It’s a biography of C. W. Whitten and H. V. Porter, two of the early leaders of the NFHS, who both served as administrators at the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) as well.
Following is a Q-and-A with Scott Johnson, longtime assistant executive director of the IHSA and author of Association Work: Whitten, Porter, and the Course of Interscholastics.
HST: What gave you the idea to write a biography of these two men?
Johnson: In the IHSA office, there are portraits of Whitten and Porter on the wall. I noticed the same portraits hanging side-byside in the foyer of the NFHS office. I was curious. How did they get started? What motivated them? What kind of issues did they have to deal with at the association and the National Federation? What was their work day like? I wanted to know more.
HST: Why were they important?
Johnson: Whitten was the first state association executive and then, on a part-time basis, the first Federation executive. Everything about interscholastic administration was new when they started their jobs, so they had to figure it out for themselves. Many of the policies, procedures and initiatives we are familiar with today stem directly from their work. Together, Whitten and Porter set up much of the machinery of the National Federation. In the 1920s and 1930s, Whitten was the driving force of the Federation in eliminating college sponsorship of high school events and securing representation on college rules committees. Porter, who became the first full-time director of the Federation in 1940, was a rules expert and inventor. Among other things, the molded ball project he directed had a revolutionary effect on sports.
HST: Is there is a lot of National Federation work in Association Work?
Johnson: Yes, the book spans their careers at both the Illinois association and the National Federation. At the IHSA, they worked side-by-side for 12 years, conducting tournaments, licensing and training officials, making eligibility rulings — things common to all state associations. During that time, Whitten ran both the IHSA and the NFHS out of the same office. The IHSA paid them, but much of their labor went to the Federation. It follows that the early history of the two groups is fundamentally intertwined.
HST: What was your goal in writing the book?
Johnson: I think it operates on four levels. It’s a biography, but it’s also an organizational history. In one or two places, it veers off into a literary review. But mostly it’s an attempt to bring Whitten and Porter down from the portraits on the wall and show who they were as people. Their common thread was a very passionate conviction that high school athletic programs serve an educational purpose. But they had different ideas about the best way to accomplish that goal.
HST: How did you try to bring their lives into perspective?
Johnson: I tried to deal fairly with their lives. They had their foibles and I didn’t try to disguise them, but I did not find anyone who ever struck a blow to the integrity of either man. I admit that I wrote from the perspective of an association executive, and occasionally I rose to their defense. Whitten withstood a lot of public criticism, most of it uninformed, during the battle over the University of Chicago’s national tournament, and more recently Porter has taken lumps from a couple of authors. But my analysis is that Whitten and Porter were very true to their purpose of developing character through athletic competition.
HST: Are there any surprises in the book?
Johnson: Well, there are no scandals, if that’s what you mean. Fans of Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne may be a little chagrined. A 1930 sports columnist finally gets his comeuppance.
HST: Do the NFHS Summer Meetings make an appearance in the book?
Johnson: Yes, the first actual “Summer Meeting” was in 1951, and so the first eight were under Porter’s leadership. The idea of a National Federation family really blossomed during that time.
HST: Did you plan to distribute the book at the Summer Meeting in Chicago?
Johnson: When I started my research four years ago, I did not know this year’s meeting would be in Chicago, but the timing has worked out perfectly. So many of the events in the book take place there. The Federation was founded at the City Club of Chicago, and the Federation office was in a downtown skyscraper. The IHSA office was in a neighboring skyscraper. Right across the street from the IHSA was the LaSalle Hotel, which was the headquarters of the Big Ten, the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee. All of these groups were within a couple blocks along Madison Street. The city was the center of the amateur athletic world during the 1930s and 1940s.
HST: Were you able to answer the questions you started with?
Johnson: I think so. Whitten and Porter’s philosophy is preserved in their writing, and most of that survives in bound volumes in the IHSA and NFHS offices. I was incredibly lucky to find almost all the resources I needed close to home. Three members of Porter’s family and one of Whitten’s live in the same retirement home in Peoria, and the families held onto a lot of good stuff — papers, photographs, films. Miraculously, our office kept many boxes of their correspondence, some of it now almost a hundred years old. With all this source material, I couldn’t not write this biography. I don’t know if the world needs a book about the life of interscholastic administrators, but here it is.
HST: You’ve got two executive directors out of the way now. Are you planning a follow-up?
Johnson: No way. My wife, Julie, is eagerly awaiting my return from the 1930s.
Association Work will be distributed to NFHS Summer Meeting delegates in Chicago at the Illinois High School Association host state booth.