Launching Pad: Chad Whittington’s path to CEO started at Ohio State Mansfield
For Chad Whittington, a music appreciation class at The Ohio State University at Mansfield turned out to be a life changer.
The Pickerington resident certainly didn’t when he took the elective course while a freshman at the regional campus, or when the instructor of the class required Whittington and his classmates to attend a performance by professional musicians.
“What stands out for me was that it was one of those moments . . . It was a real important moment for me,” Whittington said.
While a first-year college student, he expected to make teaching his life’s work, specifically as a chemistry instructor. Twenty-three years later, he is president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA).
He moved to Ontario, near Mansfield, with his family between his junior and senior years of high school, graduating from Ontario High School. “Ohio being new” to him still, the oldest of five siblings decided to continue his education at the nearby Ohio State regional campus for “lots of reasons,” including that he wanted to stay close to his family.
“I started out thinking I was going to be a chemistry major,” he said. “I wanted to teach. At some point I took an accounting class. I can’t remember why. I don’t think it was a requirement, but I liked working with numbers. … I ended up switching my major to finance.”
And he would stay with finance, taking classes for two years at the regional campus, and splitting time between Mansfield and Columbus before completing his bachelor’s degree in finance at the Columbus campus.
A ‘magical experience’
While he majored in finance, Whittington did not forget the special feeling of being in the audience for that Mansfield Symphony performance at the Renaissance Theatre in downtown Mansfield. He likely would not have had the experience had it not been that Mark Ellis, his professor, required all of his students to attend a “professional (music) event” as part of the music appreciation class.
“I think I was curious,” Whittington said of learning of the mandatory concert attendance. “That was one of my favorite things in college for me, to try new things. I remember being concerned about ‘Am I dressed up enough?’”
He said before attending Ohio State Mansfield he had little familiarity with performances of the level he encountered at the Renaissance, a restored palace-type theater opened in 1928.
“I grew up in a small community in Michigan where I did not have a lot of exposure to the arts, maybe a traveling ‘Nutcracker’ performance at Christmas,” he said.
“Really, (attending the concert at the Renaissance) was the first magical experience, to see these professionals on stage doing their craft better than anyone else. Not only was it my first time at a concert being performed by professionals, it was my first time in a historic theater, as well. It was just a great experience all the way around.”
Ellis, professor emeritus of music at Ohio State Mansfield, said that while Whittington’s career accomplishments reflect the influence of his experience in the music class, they are more a testament to Whittington’s drive and attitude toward his educational pursuits.
“Of course I am elated to know that a former student has reached a position that can encourage the arts for so many Ohioans,” Ellis said. “But obviously, Chad's success is all his own.”
“We have many great young minds pass through our Ohio State Mansfield classes, and Chad was one of the best,” he said. “As my research shows, the attitudes and behaviors of most students are changed by the experience of a music appreciation class. For other students, the force of change might be a course in ‘Anthropology,’ or ‘English Literature before Milton,’ or ‘World Geography.’ In Chad's case, his moment of awakening had to be a combination of the course, the concert experience, but first and foremost, his own eagerness to learn and grow.”
After the compulsory trip to a professional concert during winter quarter of 1996, Whittington saw a “show or two” at the Renaissance and Ovalwood Auditorium on the Mansfield campus. “To me it was opening a box that held a lot of really neat things,” Whittington said.
The newness of the experience was not lost on him, either. As he noted, he played saxophone in high school, but did not pursue the instrument further in college.
“My love (for the performing arts) does not come from being super-talented as a performer,” he said. “It’s the sheer experience of being in a room and having an experience with other people, people you didn’t know anything about and having a great shared experience.”
Discovering a career path
He began to join his recreational enjoyment of the performing arts with his career ambitions as a junior at Ohio State in Columbus when “to help pay my tuition” he tore off a piece of paper bearing a phone number from a want-ad posted by CAPA. He got the job, and began cleaning theaters and working at the security desk for the organization.
Formed in 1969, CAPA was founded to save the historic Ohio Theatre in Columbus. Today, it also owns and operates the Palace and Southern Theatres, and manages the Riffe Center Theatre Complex (Columbus), Lincoln Theatre (Columbus), Drexel Theatre (Bexley), and Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts (New Albany).
In his last quarter at Ohio State, Whittington started working in CAPA’s finance department and eventually attained the positions of controller, vice president and chief financial officer, and executive vice president and chief operating officer. He served about a year as interim president and CEO before being named as permanent president and CEO in September 2017.
He attributes his career arc with CAPA in large part to that music appreciation class.
“I always connect it to that, getting the job cleaning the theater and the position I’m in today,” he said. “I always thought that was a really important piece of my passion for the arts. Those of us who work in the arts, it is driven by a passion for what we do. A lot of what I’m driven by, I think ‘What if I hadn’t had those opportunities I had in college?’ That’s why I’m driven to make sure other people have that experience. For some, it will just be a concert, but for others it will be like what I had, and they’ll hold onto it for the rest of their lives.”
Ohio State Mansfield provides such invaluable possibilities in the lives of its students, he said.
“If you want to get a lot out of it, there are a lot of opportunities,” he said. “You see what resonates with you as an individual. I think Ohio State is a great university.”