Gus Whalen was the fourth-generation president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Warren Featherbone Company, which manufactured children’s clothing and served as a major employer in Gainesville from 1956 to 2005. Widely recognized in north Georgia as a civic-minded business leader and fervent community builder, Whalen was known nationally as a popular speaker, prolific author, and active promoter of American manufacturing.
Charles Edward “Gus” Whalen Jr. was born on April 9, 1945, in Chicago, Illinois, to Mary Louise Chamberlain and Charles E. Whalen Sr. His mother died from polio while Whalen was still a toddler. He spent his early years in Three Oaks, Michigan, where his great-grandfather, E. K. Warren, previously founded the Warren Featherbone Company in 1883. The company’s principal product, the featherbone, was manufactured from discarded turkey quills and served as the rigid material for women’s corsets. By 1900 Warren’s Featherbone was a popular brand in the women’s fashion industry, and the company prospered. A charismatic industrialist and community builder, E. K. Warren gained notoriety as a conservationist and philanthropist who purchased and provided thousands of acres to the state of Michigan for Warren Dunes State Park and Warren Woods State Park.
By 1956 Charles Whalen Sr. was president of the company. That year he relocated the business and his family to Gainesville in order to be closer to textile suppliers and to reduce labor costs. The city also offered the company generous incentives to make the transition. Gus Whalen graduated from Gainesville High School before earning degrees at LaGrange College with dual majors in business and speech. At age twenty-nine, after the untimely death of his father, he and his stepmother, Doris Whalen, took the reins of the family business. As president and CEO, Whalen continued to lead the apparel business for another thirty-one years until its baby clothes division was sold in 2005.
During the 1980s and following, as American apparel manufacturers struggled to compete in a global market, Whalen became an important voice for his industry and for manufacturing in general, serving in leadership positions with the American Apparel Manufacturers Association (later the American Apparel and Footwear Association), as well as other manufacturing-related organizations. His company continued to manufacture children’s clothing in Georgia long after most American enterprises had moved their production operations offshore.
In the mid-1990s, Whalen reactivated the Warren Featherbone Foundation, first established in 1917 by his great-grandfather. He also conceived and cofounded Georgians for Manufacturing, a statewide initiative designed to raise awareness of manufacturing’s economic importance in communities across the state. In 1995 Whalen organized the first annual Georgians for Manufacturing conference, which was held in Macon to recognize outstanding manufacturers in Georgia. Whalen’s leadership of Georgians for Manufacturing led to the creation of the annual Manufacturing Appreciation Week and the Georgia Manufacturers of the Year awards banquet, which continues to draw thousands of participants each year under the direction of the Technical College System of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Economic Development. The program became a model for similar education and awareness initiatives in other states across the nation.
Civic Achievements and Outreach
Throughout his life, Whalen promoted manufacturing as an important economic engine and a viable career choice for young people in Georgia. In his later years he became a strong advocate for “intergenerational community learning,” and in the mid-2000s he led the effort in Gainesville and other U.S. cities to establish community-based learning initiatives centered on the concept of “communiversity.”
With support from civic-minded investors in the Gainesville community, the Warren Featherbone manufacturing facility was transformed in 2005 into Featherbone Communiversity, which provides real-time collaborative learning in an intergenerational setting. The communiversity provides space for various learning institutions that serve children, adults, and seniors by offering college classrooms, a children’s museum, a manufacturing incubator program, and a general-use auditorium for educational conferences and lectures. Founding members are Lanier Technical College, Interactive Neighborhood for Kids (INK), and Brenau University. In 2010 the Southern Growth Policies Board named Featherbone Communiversity as the Innovator Award Winner from Georgia, and in 2014 Whalen became the inaugural president of the Association of Communiversities.
Whalen received many distinctive honors over the course of his career, including the Distinguished Service Award from Gainesville State College (later University of North Georgia); induction into the Northeast Georgia Business Hall of Fame from Junior Achievement of Georgia; and the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award from Brenau University in Gainesville. He also served on a number of boards, including those of the Kiwanis Club, Gainesville City Schools Board of Education, North Georgia Health System, and Georgia State Workforce Investment.
Whalen was the author of four books that focus on corporate and spiritual principles supported by poignant and humorous stories from his business life and personal experiences. The Featherbone Principle (1996) emphasizes the importance of manufacturing to communities in America and the need to recognize our corporate and individual interdependence. The Featherbone Spirit (2000) celebrates the practical and spiritual connections that bind us together as humans. The Gift of Renewal (2003) offers hope and inspiration to readers during times of trouble and apparent chaos, and Hooked at the Roots (2009) recounts the transition of the Featherbone Company from an apparel manufacturing business to an organization focused on intergenerational and collaborative learning.
Gus Whalen was a frequent keynote speaker at national conferences. He gained popularity for his wit, wisdom, and insight into the roles of interdependence, connectedness, intergenerational learning, and community involvement in business and personal life.
Whalen died in Gainesville on June 21, 2015, at the age of seventy.