By Kelly Heyboer
June 6, 2016
TEWKSBURY – For former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman and her husband, it was a trip of a lifetime.
The former first couple of New Jersey traveled to Normandy, France, last year with a tour group organized by the National World War II Museum to visit sites related to D-Day on the battle’s 71st anniversary.
Whitman watched as her husband, John, silently walked alone along the sands of Omaha Beach where thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded in one of bloodiest and most epic battles of the war. It was a powerful moment for John, a lifelong World War II buff and decorated Vietnam War veteran.
“He was always interested and fascinated by what it took for men to keep going back at the same thing over and over again when so many were being killed around them,” said Christie Whitman, 69. “This was a special trip that he wanted to do.”
Within weeks of returning from France, he fell and suffered a catastrophic brain injury. He died July 2, 2015, at age 71.
The Whitman family and their friends are honoring John by establishing a scholarship in his honor to send college students to Normandy to learn about D-Day.
The first recipients of the John R. Whitman Normandy Scholarship leave later this month on a 12-day educational tour that will take them from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans to the beaches of Normandy, France, to retrace the steps of those who lived and died on D-Day.
The museum sends about 30 students a year on the tour. The new Whitman scholarship will cover the cost of the $3,695 trip for three students this year. In the future, six students will get the Whitman scholarship each year.
With many of the survivors of D-Day gone, the trip is designed to help pass on their stories to a new generation.
Historians view D-Day as one of the turning points of World War II. More than 160,000 troops, half of them American, invaded Western Europe on June 6, 1944, in one of the most historic military operations of the war.
Thousands of soldiers died or were wounded after meeting fierce resistance from German troops. But the troops eventually moved into Europe and helped win the war.
The National World War II Museum tour sends college students on an in-depth tour of D-Day battle sites. Students also meet with local veterans of the French Resistance to hear their stories.
The idea for the scholarship came from travelers who took the D-Day tour with the Whitmans last year and began donating to the National World War II Museum in John Whitman’s honor after hearing about his death.
The Whitman family liked the idea and worked with the museum to establish a permanent scholarship in John Whitman’s honor.
“It’s about young people and education and it’s about World War II– all of the things about which he felt very passionate,” the former governor said in an interview on the historic farm in Tewskbury in Hunterdon County that the couple shared.
Sitting in her husband’s book-lined home office, an emotional Whitman paged through several photo albums she designed on her computer using shots she took of her husband on her cell phone during their D-Day trip.
She lingered on photos showing John Whitman walking alone on the Normandy beaches, deep in thought.
“It was ironic in that the last trip John and I took together was to Normandy,” Whitman said. “John had been born on June 8, 1944, so he always described himself as ‘D-Day plus two.'”
While his wife served as New Jersey’s governor from 1994 to 2001, John Whitman kept a lower profile as the state’s “first gentleman.” Like his wife, he came from a wealthy and historic family. His grandfather, Charles Whitman, was the governor of New York during World War I.
John Whitman served in the Vietnam War and was awarded two Bronze Stars, including one for valor, though he rarely spoke about it, his wife said.
John Whitman and then-Christie Todd began dating in 1973. Their first date was at President Richard Nixon’s inaugural ball. The couple was married for 41 years and have two children and six grandsons. A seventh grandchild, a girl, is expected later this year.
John Whitman had a successful career in finance and worked behind the scenes as one of his wife’s chief advisers as she rose through New Jersey politics and won two terms as governor.
“He made a point of not interjecting himself into the political fray,” Whitman said. “But, he was very defensive of me. He always had my back and was my best supporter.”
Whitman and her children, Kate and Taylor, read the essays of the applicants and helped select the winners of the first year of the D-Day scholarship.
Meeting the winners
The family will travel to New Orleans later this month to meet the winners in person before the students leave on the D-Day trip on June 19.
The trip includes three days at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, followed by a tour of Paris and more than a week touring Normandy battle sites, museums and graveyards. Students, who are required to do extensive reading of World War II history before the trip, can get three college credits for the trip.
This is the fourth year the museum is offering the D-Day trip for college students. A similar trip for high school students is also planned, said Nathan Huegen, director of educational travel at the National World War II Museum.
“This is really bringing the younger generation into what we call a deep dive into the World War II experience,” Huegen said. “We’ve always had a dream of doing more of these kind of things.”
Some of the students who take the tours have relatives who fought on D-Day. One of the participants on recent trip returned to the beach where his grandfather landed on D-Day wearing part of his 70-year-old uniform.
“He wore his grandfather’s jacket on Utah Beach. That was the first time that had happened since 1944,” Huegen said. “That was a really compelling moment for us.”
For its debut year, the museum reached out to a few East Coast universities to encourage students to apply for the Whitman scholarship to take the D-Day trip. Next year, museum officials plan to promote the scholarship at more schools.
“I would love to see it expanded to more universities and I would love to see more New Jersey students apply,” Whitman said.
How to apply
For applications and information about the John R. Whitman Normandy Scholarship, contact the National World War II Museum’s education travel department at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 528-1944 x257.