Remembering Mal Whitfield
06:17 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Fredricka Whitfield is a CNN anchor who hosts the weekend edition of CNN Newsroom.

Story highlights

"Marvelous Mal" Whitfield was an Olympic medalist, Tuskegee airman and longtime U.S. diplomat

His daughter, CNN Anchor Fredricka Whitfield, recalls the lessons he taught his family

CNN  — 

Dad took his last breath Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving.

I keep replaying in my mind what I have to describe as the most beautiful transition out of human life I’ve seen.

For a second that may sound confusingly harsh. What can be beautiful about dying?

Fredricka Whitfield

If you were at my Dad’s hospice bedside, like me, my mom Nola, sister Nyna and brother Malvin Jr., also known as Lonnie, you’d agree.

Dad seemed to be pacing himself in the final stretch.

We were told by his fabulous team of doctors and nurses he was transitioning out of life because he had been refusing to eat and drink for a third day.

Yet, his vitals remained strong given his 91 years.

Mal Whitfield was still breathing like a champ.

Like the two-time Olympic gold, silver and bronze medalist who forever gained adoring fans worldwide.

Like the Tuskegee Airman tail gunner who flew 27 combat missions in World War ll and the Korean War. Like the diplomat who spent more than 30 years as a U.S. State Department foreign service officer and Ambassador of Sport.

Malvin G. Whitfield was nicknamed “Marvelous Mal” because he was, well, so marvelous.

Now, though, in the recent days of Marvelous Mal, under 24-7 medical care, there were no words coming from this giant of a man.

No movement of his 6-foot-2, now slight, frame.

No regular eye activity or even blinking. The lids of his eyes were locked, partially shut.

‘Don’t count me out’

We could still tell this would not be a sprint. That dad meant it a month ago when his care team thought he was exiting for good, only for him the next morning to tell his nurses, “I hope you brought a big lunch.” Ha! He had a million out-of-nowhere humorous bursts like that.

It was completely in sync with one of his favorite mantras of life: Don’t count me out.

Fredricka Whitfield, her mother Nola, and Mal Whitfield, the day he asked for a "big lunch."

Among the greatest gifts Dad had given us were humor, inspirational “Mal-ism” phrases and close-up views and experiences of our magnificently diverse globe.

At his hospice bed, as a family, we’d sit, stare, talk … a lot to Dad, touch his chest, hold his hand, gaze at pictures of family and friends that wallpapered his room, thank him for an amazing ride from Monrovia, Liberia, my brother’s birthplace, to my birthplace of Nairobi, Kenya, to our home in Mogadishu, Somalia, to home in the Washington, D.C., area and all of the incredible stops and visits in between.

And believe me, it didn’t take this moment for us to count our blessings.

We’ve always appreciated these gifts from the top and bottom of our hearts.

‘Let’s go’

My brother, sister and I were little and living in Somalia. I was roughly 5. Malvin Jr. 10 and Nyna 11.

One late afternoon/early evening, Dad piled us all in the Land Rover, and said, “let’s go,” not telling us where we were going.

We drove through dusty streets of what, at the time, was considered downtown Mogadishu.

It was bustling. My memory recalls old dark-exhaust emitting cars and trucks, scurrying pedestrians and a blend of gray and off-white low-rise structures of businesses, shops and markets.

“So when are we getting there, what are we supposed to see?” I was thinking in the way of my small child’s mind.

My Dad used few words, just his index finger pointing out life, the direction we should be looking:

The mix of old and young people balancing filled baskets and cloth sacks on their heads as they walked on sidewalks, across streets dodging vehicles that slowed for no one.

Groups of school kids in uniforms.

Regular life happening while we, as a family, resided in a round-the-clock guarded, high-walled Indian Ocean beach side compound for U.S. diplomat Whitfield and his family.

Dad pointed out a woman sitting on the ground leaning against one of those downtown business walls.

Mal Whitfield competes in 1948 Olympics

“Why was she sitting on the ground, so many people passing her by as though she didn’t exist?” the kid in me would think.

Dad explained she had “elephantiasis,” her legs so grossly enormously swollen, likely from drinking bad water and ingesting a parasite of some sort. She was unable to walk.

And so she begged for shillings.

The drive went on through streets, through people’s lives, and then we returned home.

“That’s it?!” I would think.

Only much later would I understand what that was all about.

Dad wanted us not JUST to live in these fabulous places with American diplomatic privileges, but to get out there. See, touch, feel and be among the beautiful people of these extraordinary places.

To be aware. Appreciate. Assimilate.

What he taught us

I’m so thankful for so much about Dad, “Marvelous Mal.” What he taught us kids. What he showed us. How he exposed us to a world of possibilities.

He did that. Unselfishly.

I’m hearing his voice in my head right now, “Don’t wait for things to happen. Make it happen.” Marvelous Mal demonstrated that.

Self-doubt was never a consideration in our household.

Dad: “You can do it,” “All things are possible,” “run your own race.” He had a ton of Mal-isms like that.

Inspiration. He is our source. Greatness. He defines it.

We feel immense gratitude because Dad impressed on us we all have a place in the world. We all matter.

And (another Mal-ism) “there are no boundaries.”

So when news of global importance arises, the first person I always naturally think of is Dad. Given his travels to 132 countries as an athlete and diplomat, I trust his opinions, observations and assessments.

In his post-State Department retirement years, he was a CNN addict. Even in his hospice room, his TV stayed tuned to CNN. I knew that, envisioned it every time I took my seat on set. If no one else was watching me on weekends, I always knew he and my mom were, religiously.

They are the audience I especially don’t ever want to disappoint.

In Paris

As the investigation of the Paris attacks evolved this week, at Dad’s bedside, I wished I could get his impressions as a diplomat and Dad.

After all, we had a special connection to the magical City of Light.

I was a college exchange student in Paris when Dad passed through to see me while in transit between diplomatic posts.

How cool, I remember thinking, that instead of me visiting Dad in some remarkable place, HE’S visiting ME in a city abroad.

He got a kick out of me ordering chocolat chaud that evening at a cafe. Then we did as les Parisiennes do: enjoyed a casual walk, strolling the Place de la Concorde, viewing the lovely things in store windows on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore.

Dad spotted a gold vase filled with gold sparkling roses. But the store was closed. Following Dad’s departure, I returned to that shop.

And when I visited him in Nairobi on my spring break, I surprised him with that gilded accessory from our moment in Paris.

It’s endured all of these years and remains on a glass table at our family home.

A man who endured


A fitting word for a gold vase and for Dad.

Marvelous Mal went the distance indeed. In that D.C. hospice, on what would become the third and final day, we, as a family, held vigil around Marvelous Mal. And he let us know, in his own way, that he was bending the last turn of his race called life. Displaying a kind of courage and determination no words could adequately describe. A moment so private and precious, his finish was strong.

So long Dad, and thank you Marvelous Mal.

I came back to work the next day, motivated by a refrain from Dad to “keep moving.”

Plus, it’s the least I could do to say thanks to so many of you for being so loving and caring about Dad, so often asking about him.

And, of course, I wanted those who don’t know about Marvelous Mal’s path to understand how he touched so many of us.

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