I first encounter Dr. John R. White in an Introduction to Anthropology class at Youngstown State, probably in 1975. He was a large presence, physically, as well as in terms of charisma. When I knew him, he had a big bushy beard and hair, not unlike the picture here. He was one of the most riveting lecturers at Youngstown and one of the reasons I minored in Anthropology, despite the fact that I think I earned no better than a “B” in any of his classes while earning “A’s” in most of the others.
As I’ve mentioned in some posts, I arrived at college fresh out of the Jesus movement as a committed believer (still am, but hopefully more thoughtful and mature about that). Perhaps having studied various cultures and seen religion at its worst as well as best, he didn’t share my commitments. We talked, we disagreed (usually after class) but he always said what he thought, allowing me to do likewise. I learned a great deal along the way, that has shaped me to this day. His course on Native Americans, who he studied extensively, opened my eyes both to the beauty in their culture, and the horrendous ways we violated treaties and stole land from those who were here before us. He helped open my eyes to ways we had not lived up to our proclaimed ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” And I discovered that we can learn from people very different from us, even those with whom we have disagreements.
And then I graduated. And I have to say I did not follow Dr. White’s career until I began writing about Youngstown. I discovered that he had a large presence in the city, even when he had the opportunity to leave for more prestigious academic opportunities. He published over one hundred academic articles and books. He won Distinguished Professor awards in 1979, 1981, 1985, and 2005, and numerous other awards. He served as the department chair of Anthropology and Sociology from 1995 until 2005, when he became an emeritus professor.
His name comes up in connection with a number of the historic sites around Youngstown, including the Hopewell Furnace along Yellow Creek, the Mill Creek Furnace in Mill Creek Park, and the Mercer Furnace. He organized a group of students to try to identify the original site of the William Holmes McGuffey home in Coitsville. He was involved in excavations at Lanterman’s Mill, the Austin Log House, and Hubbard House. He even led the excavation and restoration of the Old Stone Bridge at Youngstown State in 2005.
He was a stage presence in productions both at Youngstown State and the Youngstown Playhouse.His credits included Guys and Dolls, Three Penny Opera, The Grapes of Wrath, and Lysistrata. Perhaps one of his most remembered roles was as John Brown in a production at Harpers Ferry, where the real John Brown attempted to seize the U.S. Arsenal. My suspicion is that if it had been Dr. White, he might have succeeded!
He came up when I was writing about the Fresh Air Camp, which he served as co-director for four years. The kids loved “Big John” and he had a lifelong impact on many of them. He wrote a book for children, Hands On Archaeology, still in print, and loved sharing his love for a good “dig” with children of all ages.
I was saddened to learn that I’d missed my chance to see my old professor. John R. White passed away on August 22, 2009, at the age of 72 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He had been involved in the ongoing dig at the Mercer blast furnace, and had planned to dig there on the Saturday he passed away.
If I were to see him, I would thank him for opening my eyes to how other cultures are just different, and embody unique qualities of beauty. I would thank him for teaching me how I could learn from someone with whom I differed and for modelling the passionate pursuit of what he cared about. And I would thank him for staying in Youngstown when so many of us left. While my writing may help us remember the rich heritage of our home town, he helped us literally discover it, particularly the iron-making history at our city’s roots.
Thank you, Dr. White.
Sources: John White Obituary
“YSU Professor Loved YSU Until His Death,” The Vindicator, August 25, 2009