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Helen "Jo" White

spoken at memorial service 5/9/2015, written down some months later

High School graduation, circa 1938

My grandmother Helen "Jo" White passed away on March 27 at age 94. At her memorial service on May 9 I spoke for a few minutes without a pre-written script. To the best of my recollection several months later, I said something like this:

Don and Helen "Jo" White are present in some of my earliest childhood memories. This is notable because for my first eight years we lived several hundred miles apart. Nonetheless, the rare occasions that I got to see them left a strong impression on me. It didn't take many visits for me to feel a close bond with them. You can only imagine how thrilled I was when my mom moved us up from Southern California to the Bay Area the summer before I started 4th grade. She made this decision in large part so that we could be closer to my grandparents, and to this day I am grateful for this move.

As a young boy, I suppose it's natural that my attention tended to focus on Grandpa. He was the first man that I ever looked up to. Due to his hip being fused long before I was born, Grandpa limped with a cane. I don't think I even realized that this was something that could be considered a disability. I considered it more of a special feature and it sure didn't seem to slow him down at all. Some of my most enduring memories are from time spent at our family cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Grandpa would go out early in the day to cut down trees, chop firewood, and perform other maintenance on the cabin and land around it. I would grab a spare pair of his work gloves and put them on my undersized hands (Smaller gloves were available, but I really wanted to wear gloves that he used). I would grab a spare cane of his and tag along with him for as long as I could. I think I even tried to emulate his limp.
Whatever energy of youth I had was never enough to keep up with Grandpa. By early afternoon I'd call it quits while he'd typically work until sunset. As much as I treasured spending time with the man I idolized, I found ample reward in returning to the cabin to then spend some with Grandma. She would read to me, or I would read to her, or we could play games or just talk. To be honest, the particulars of how we spent our time together during that phase of my childhood have faded. What remains strong though is the overarching feeling of being loved. To this day Grandma epitomizes for me qualities of warmth and kindness.

Jo White was so much more than an old-fashioned stereotype of a woman who cooked, raised children, and tended to matters of the home. Sure, she was a remarkable mother and wife, but even before that her sharp and independent mind set her apart from the crowd. She excelled in the classroom, winning many regional and state recognitions and at least one national award. She was also valedictorian of her high school. Admirable though her academic feats may be, the family tellings of such accomplishments aren’t the ones that resonate with me the most. More intriguingly, she was a student of the communities and the world around her.

Don & Jo during Parícutin eruption in July 1943, Michoacán, Mexico

When my grandfather Don’s geology career started to prosper and transplant him to locations around the globe, Jo eventually left her teaching career to accompany him. I enjoy hearing about how she was so much more than just her husband’s woman. She was an adaptable companion deeply immersed in the worldly adventures. While Don and his male colleagues generally got along well with their international counterparts, Jo typically served as a most adept ambassador. She engaged with locals involved in the work effort, their families, and their children. She studied diligently to increase her fluency in the native language or even try to learn it anew. Not content with being a passive sidekick, Jo White was an integral part of dynamic duo.

In Jo’s career as a middle school teacher she pondered her own strengths and good fortunes in contrast with the students for whom she cared deeply. Ravenswood, the school in CA where she taught, had recently been struck with white flight and many/most of the students who remained faced some harsh disadvantages. I don’t get the sense that Jo felt guilty for her own privileges, nor did she have a savior complex. Rather, she felt a deep obligation to know and care about her students on a personal level and try her best to uplift them through education.

Before it became fashionable or political, both Don and Jo cared about environment issues. Whether it be food or material goods, they adhered themselves and instilled in their children the principle of not being wasteful. In fact, shortly before heading out to this memorial service it struck me how one of my own quirky habits traces directly back to my grandmother. While standing in my kitchen I spotted something on top of the refrigerator that made me think of her. There, in various degrees of newness, was a stack of napkins and paper towels. Granted, my grandma kept a neater house than I do and she tended to keep her collection concealed in a drawer. People often teased her about this practice, but she just couldn’t bring herself to throw away a napkin until it had been used to its fullest. Similarly, I find that I almost never need to buy paper towels due to the plentiful supply of slightly-used napkins I bring home from my assorted outings.

Don & Jo 50th anniversary

Over the recent days when it became evident that my grandmother was nearing the end of her life I kept pondering more connections to her. Some were profound or well-engrained in my consciousness while others were subtle trivialities that I may not have ever noticed before. Regardless, in this time when many family members and friends of Helen “Jo” White are enduring the grief of her passing, it strikes me that my overwhelming mood is one of joy. I look back on the fulfilling life that she forged out for herself and can’t help but feel inspired for having known her, loved her, been loved by her, and been so fortunate to inherit some of her traits. It’s no surprise that of Don and Jo’s three daughters and three grandchildren, all of us have either careers and/or passionate interests in the arenas of education or social justice. Jo White’s legacy lives on in large and small ways, and even in losing her I can’t help but smile when I think of her.