thanks all for the informative posts. i broke down and gave up on the challenge tonight. i took the assembly out and verified that the thermocouple was intact. it moved in/out just a smidgen, but nothing meaningful and i was too nervous to bend it closer to the pilot. looking at the old reliant that i replaced, that thermocouple is much closer to the pilot. the whirlpool seems to be blocks away.
so i drained it, boxed it up and returned it. i went to that other place and grabbed a GE that went in easy and stayed on after the burner kicked in. i have to admit that the piezo starter on the whirlpool was nicer and seemed to lite the pilot quicker than the one on the GE, but the GE is still on.
all in all i am happy. yes because i have hot water now without having to babysit the water heater, but moreover for getting the opportunity to learn. if it was just plug and play, then i would not have learned anything nor gained the reassurance that i can do it.
thanks again everyone!