Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown –Dr. John R. White

John White

Dr. John R. White

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 Archaeologystill 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


9 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown –Dr. John R. White

  1. You write, “the real John Brown attempted to seize the U. S. arsenal [at Harpers Ferry]. My suspicion is that if it had been Dr. White, it might have succeeded.” John Brown did succeed in capturing the arsenal. The following morning he and his men were attacked by Federal Troops, one of whose commanding officers was Robert E. Lee. Brown and his men were overcome and the arsenal recaptured.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We must have been at YSU during the same time frame, Bob! I did not have Dr. White, but had so many wonderful professors at YSU who broadened my world and shaped who I’ve become. I will be forever grateful for my Youngstown roots! Thanks for your great blog! I always enjoy your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Austin Log Cabin | Bob on Books

  4. Thank you for writing such a heartwarming piece about my father. You can’t know how much it means that his existence still has an impact on you. It was a lovely gift to read. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathryn, thank you for your note. When I wrote this, I discovered so much more about your father than I knew from my student experiences. He did so much to uncover the history of the Mahoning Valley that I write about. I had not known about his involvement with the Fresh Air camps. He had a heart of gold and a passion for everything he did. It was a privilege to have been one of his students.


  5. I found this post by doing a deep dive into one of my childhood’s favorite memories: archaeology camp at Camp Kern! I was delighted to also find an article that Dr. White wrote about the years I was in the camp when we created the Kern Mound. It’s outlined in: “An Exercise in Field Archaeology for the Gifted: Fake Mound, Genuine Scholarship.” by White, John R. in Gifted Child Today (GCT), v15 n5 p2-6 Sep-Oct 1992. Dr. White truly inspired me and, although I didn’t go into his field, I am now a professor myself. That camp was one of the first places where I truly felt belonging and shared interests. I will never forget him and the meaningful experiences he gave me and my fellow campers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would have loved to done a dig with him! I have heard glowing reports of his work with kids and how he inspired and cared for them. His courses were in my minor, but very tough–he made you think and work and not parrot back what he said. So valuable!


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