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Getting to Know Who's in Center Ring

by Kelley Colvin

The horse industry has a rich history of being a family sport. Spouses, siblings, parents and children train together, show together and work together. Like many others, Bill Whitley and Mary Lynn Thompson met in the show ring as exhibitors. That common bond eventually led the couple down the aisle, beginning a commitment to each other and to the horse industry that continues today.

Bill got his start in the horse business in the late 60s. While still in high school he began working after class with Luther Harrell in Fayetteville, N.C., and continued to train there through college. "I worked with mainly Road Horses and Road Ponies," said Bill.

In the early 70s, he moved back to Wilson, N.C., to go to college. Larry Moore had a very large breeding operation in Wilson where Johnny Lucas, Sr., Johnny Lucas, Jr., and Billy Cox started some great colts.

"I would sit in class and see the van from Miss Jean McLean's farm in Portsmouth, Va., roll into town heading to Mr. Moore's Stables. I would find a way to excuse myself from class and drive to the stable and see the new colts the Moores had purchased being unloaded off the van," stated Whitley.

After college he worked at Greenfield Farm where he showed horses, taught lessons, held summer camps and would take upwards of 20 horses to show. It was there that he met Dee Dee Gatlin. He helped start such horsemen as Patience Dibrell Ergish, Inga Gillikin and Mimi Moyo who became championship quality riders.

It was the horse business that introduced Bill to the love of his life, his wife Mary Lynn. The two met in 1967 at the local Wilson Horse Show and were married seven long years later. "I used to get her to show some of the gamiest, almost outlaw horses; she was a heck of a horseman," he remembered. It wasn't long until an unusual twist of fate would take the Whitleys in a new direction in the horse business.

In the late 70s after being married, Bill got his start ring mastering at the Raleigh Spring Premier. "Later the same year, I was invited to Tampa to ring master at the Tampa Yacht Club Show, I purchased a red coat similar to the ones that I wear today." From the start, Bill felt that his duty was to keep people out of harm's way. "Coming from a background dealing with youth and amateurs, I'm very partial to their safety," he said.

Ring mastering as a pastime, Whitley worked for the Treasurer of the State of North Carolina, where he was responsible for managing assets totaling $65 billion. He was directly responsible for managing the long term portfolio, which totaled more than $25 billion. It was his duty to out perform the measuring marketplace benchmarks, which he did successfully for 30 years. He's currently retired from the Treasurer's office, but can remember when he could only take a limited number of days off so he would work at some of the shows in North Carolina and then drive upwards of four hours to get home at night to be at work the next day. "I couldn't have done it without Mary Lynn. She used to drive me to the shows and she would sleep while I worked the show so she could drive me home while I slept to make it home in time for work," Whitley recalled.

This year Whitley will have traveled to 22 horse events by year's end. On his list of commitments this year are the World's Championship Horse Show, Morgan Grand Nationals, Midwest, Mid A, North Carolina Championship, Asheville Lions Club, Blue Ridge Classic, North Carolina State Fair, Challenge of Champions, Bonnie Blue, Connecticut Morgan, ASHAV, Gasparilla, Southeastern and Southern States Morgan just to name a few. "I work one-night horse shows to some that run nine days long. They all have equal importance to me with the most important concern being to provide a safe venue for people to show and exhibit," he said.

In 1993, Mary Lynn became an AHSA steward, which has allowed her to travel with Bill to many of the same shows. "It is great that we have both found something we love to do that allows us to still spend time together, even on the road," said Mary Lynn. In just ten years she has earned the respect of many show managers and exhibitors as a fair steward. She has worked for an impressive list of shows including New England Morgan, Southern States, J.D. Massey, Connecticut Morgan, Granite States, Raleigh, Asheville Lions Club, Tampa, Fla., Gasparilla, Humanity Challenge of Champions in West Palm Beach, Fla., WCHS and Morgan Grand Nationals. If it wasn't for the combined travel schedule, the couple would never see each other during the months of February thru October. In addition to being a steward, Mary Lynn manages the family farm, where they raise corn, soybeans and a large tobacco allotment, while on the road.

Proving his love for the sport and how the sport loves him, Bill Whitley has been named the Ring master of the Year from 2000-2003. The most recent award means as much to him as the first. "I love to watch the evolution of the exhibitor from the academy rider to junior exhibitor then to amateur who might go on to become a professional. I love to watch it all grow - the horses, the people and the shows from the ground up."

The Whitleys consider themselves lucky to have found something that they both love so much. In turn many show managers, exhibitors and trainers are grateful to have them as a part of their show. They appreciate Mary Lynn's honest and precise answers to their questions and respect Bill for his help, encouragement and efficiency. While both Bill and Mary Lynn love horses, they agree it is the people they have met who have made their jobs rewarding. "In the past 30 years this has just expanded into one of the most rewarding jobs," said Bill. "I enjoy the people I have met and the friendships I have made have been great."

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