Mildred Missouri McKinney Whitener Coe was one of four daughters of Fons and Jane McKinney. Mickey's father Fons (James Alfonzo,1881-1953) was a carpenter who built many of the homes in Little Switzerland, NC including the one where he and Mickey's mother Jane Buchanan (1876-1956) settled and established their family.
It was in Little Switzerland that nineteen-year-old Mickey, then an aspiring painter being tutored by the painter Frank Stanley Herring, was introduced to Paul Whitener, a Hickory native and Duke University student who was at the time working with planners of the Blue Ridge Parkway in her home area. One day he chanced on her painting a landscape up near the McKinney home. As the family lore remembers, after admiring Mickey's work, Paul lifted the paintbrush from her hand and said, “I believe I could do that.” This meeting not only sparked their courtship, it also ignited Paul’s career in the arts. (Paul's 1940 impression of the Blue Ridge Mountain homestead where Mickey grew up.
Below: Mickey in an undated photograph, Frank Stanley Herring's painting of Mickey being dressed for her August 22,1936 wedding to Paul, an official wedding portrait, and the couple shortly after they were married..
The couple settled in Hickory where Paul nurtured his artistic talents and pursued his ambition to establish an art museum for Hickory, while Mickey actively supported his endeavors in both areas in a number of ways including holding paid employment such as Buyer for the Charles Ritz makeup line. She also collaborated tirelessly with Paul to get the museum up and running, often traveling with him on museum business. After he developed a brain tumor in the mid-1950’s, she spent two years caring for him before he died, while his father managed the Museum.
Mickey was an artistic inspiration to Paul throughout their marriage, including in the many portraits he painted of her. In 1938 he posed her with their cocker spaniel Dipsey Doodle who was a puppy at the time and was part of their lives for over 16 years. It seems appropriate that the dog's name references two of their favorite activities: the Dipsy Doodle was a popular song and dance in the late 1930s (they did like to dance), and it is also a move in football (Paul of course had been a football player in college). The frame on this painting was hand-carved by Paul. The other two portraits below date from the 1940's and the early 1950's. The last picture shows Mickey mimicking her pose in a very early portrait of herself by Paul.
After Paul's death in 1959, Mickey served as HMA's Director until her own retirement in 1996. She kept the Museum going through two moves (into the the former office building of Shuford Mills in 1960 and into its current location in the early 1980's), she shepherded the Museum's growth in programming and in its collection of art, and she assured HMA's first prestigious national accreditation ranking from the American Association of Museums in 1991 after a meticulous three-year-process. (She is pictured on her induction in the Hickory Rotary Club in 1997.)
The photographs in this post are from HMA's files. The paintings are from HMA's collection and also from its 2017 exhibition (July 27, 2017 - January 21, 2018) of works selected by Guest Curator Pat Turner Mitchell, Mickey's niece.
An August 2017 Mitchell County Historical Society notice about HMA's 2017 The Early Days exhibit in the Whitener gallery adds some details to the setting and consequences of Paul's and Mickey's initial meeting.
This post is #5 of the 75 stories to celebrate HMA's 75 years.
Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.