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Updated: May 21, 2014 18:18 IST

Putting a smile on people’s faces

SHONALI MUTHALALY
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Bill White and (right) Robert Whitfield. Photo: K. Pichumani
The Hindu Bill White and (right) Robert Whitfield. Photo: K. Pichumani

Robert Whitfield and his friend Bill White, nephew of legendary country singer Jim Reeves, were in the city to talk about kindness, a global mission

First of all there’s a duck. From Texas. Called Dusty. I kid you not. As we eye each other suspiciously, the Jim Reeves song starts. I look away from the duck and smile uncertainly at Bill White, who’s singing enthusiastically, both his hands up in the air. Beside him stands a beaming Robert Whitfield. He’s travelling around the world to be kind. Yes. Kind.

I sit down and groan inwardly. How in the world do I unravel this story?

Deep breath. The duck seems like a good place to start. “His name is Dusty,” says Whitfield, proudly holding up the beat-up, faded-yellow, ridiculously cheerful rubber toy. Right. “Why?” I ask. “Well. He’s yellow. So he connects with people of all colours.” I’m not convinced. “But. Why a duck?” He hands Dusty to me. “There’s something endearing about ducks.” I gaze at Dusty, sitting placidly in the centre of my palm. Whitfield continues, “He’s small and handy to pass on. And he makes people smile.”

As we settle down by the pool at the Vivanta by Taj Connemara, Whitfield poses for pictures with White and Dusty. Nephew of legendary country musician, Jim Reeves, White has pastored churches in Texas for over 40 years and travelled the world with his guitar singing country songs. He’s in India to participate in the ‘Kindness Journey.’ Which brings us back to the kindness: Whitfield is literally travelling across the world to be kind. Officially, his journey is to “foster respect through the understanding of various cultures around the world and to identify ‘Kindness’ in various communities.” But the bottom line is, this is a story about a man and a duck circling the world to make people smile.

“I started my journey in December 2011 from Texas,” he says. “I feel this journey is something I am supposed to be doing. It’s a calling for me… I’ve seen the power of kindness and I want to pass on the message.” Once he made his decision, Whitefield quit his job, sold his furniture and liquidated everything he owned. “I wanted to see where kindness would take me. I had no plans. Most of the time I would get off the plane in a new city, knowing nobody. Just me, Dusty and my camera.”

It’s not always easy, he confesses. “I'll have to admit it was very lonely. And it continues to be. But then, loneliness is part of the human experience. That's the reason for cell phones, Facebook and the Internet. They all represent how lonely humans are… We all have these expectations. But most of our lives don’t turn out the way we expect them to. The reality is we will all have good days, bad days, happy days, sad days.”

Smile that touches hearts

Whitfield realised that the one thing he could always count on were unexpected acts of kindness. “I've covered all of China. Been to Africa, South America, the UAE… I go into a town. Stop strangers. Ask them — ‘how do you show kindness? I write down what they tell me, take their picture and post it on my Facebook page.” (The page is ‘Around The World – The Kindness Journey’.) He continues, “People say they are kindest when they smile. Feed the poor. Help the elderly.”

Whitfield is blissfully unfazed by scepticism. “I know I’m idealistic. But remember that kindness always comes back. In a variety of ways. We live in a world where politics doesn't work. We’ve watched diplomacy and politics polarise people. Even in families, there’s anger because people don’t know how to communicate. Because kindness has eroded.” He continues, “The Singapore Government now has a department for kindness, and I work with them. They have programmes that start in elementary school.”

Bill White chimes in at this point. “Maybe it’s not scientific. But it is real.” His contribution to this Indian leg of the journey is music, a gift inspired by his late uncle. “My father’s sister Mary married a professional baseball player in Texas. His name was James Travis Reeves. When Travis got injured, he put down his ball glove, picked up a guitar and became ‘Jim Reeves,’ an international star.” White adds, “Country music then was fairly hilly billy. It was twangy… a lot of fun, but not particularly suave. In the 60s, Jim and his friends started to use orchestra strings. He would sing low and mellow. Close to the microphone, like he was singing in your ear. The sound became broader and deeper, and was called the ‘Nashville sound’.”

White was 18 when Reeves died in a plane crash. “He was flying the plane and got caught in a storm…” Whites adds, “People around the world still listen to his music today. And I sing his songs. So when I heard that the Indians love Reeves, I came here to perform. Because music is a powerful way to communicate.”

“It’s been almost two years and I still don't know how this journey is going to end,” says Whitfield. “I consider myself a cultural bridge builder.” He adds thoughtfully, “As for what I’ve learned… We need more than shelter, food and clothes. The truth is, ultimately, all of us want to be loved.”

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