“Every time you do a good deed you shine the light a little farther into the dark. And the thing is, when you’re gone that light is going to keep shining on, pushing the shadows back.”
John White, a man who selflessly gave back to the community he grew up in for over five decades, has died.
Mr. White, who served as East Boston Area Planning Action Committee’s (APAC) director for over 50 years, passed away at his daughter Siobhan Dispenza’s home in Syracuse, NY surrounded by his loving family on Tuesday, June 7 following a brief illness. He was 87 years old.
Mr. White was a legend in East Boston whose actions transcended rhetoric and whose name became synonymous with compassion for the poor. He was a man that never sought glory, awards, headlines, or acknowledgement.
His impact in East Boston rose above today’s social media soundbites and was measured by his deeds and work on behalf of those most marginalized and most in need in our community.
He touched the lives of many but a want for praise was not his motivation.
It’s hard to find a family in East Boston Mr. White hasn’t helped through the numerous social service programs APAC runs from its small office on Meridian Street where Mr. White would consistently make miracles happen.
From fuel assistance, to summer jobs, to tax help to just being a friendly ear that listened to the struggles of local families, White never turned away a request for help and would always dismiss the ‘thank you” he received as an unnecessary gesture.
“What stood me in good stead is that I knew the turf,” White once said. “This work is very intense. You have people sitting across from you with some very serious problems. I wanted to use the tools I had to help them. Those I help every day should never feel indebted to my service.”
Anyone who knew Mr. White knew he’d rather be out of the spotlight and busy doing the work on behalf of the community he loved.
“There are no words to express how much this man meant to so many,” said former Chief of Probation in East Boston, Tommy Tassinari. “John never stopped looking out and caring for everyone. He would walk the streets of the East Boston neighborhoods early in the morning so he could understand the needs of the people. He was a wise man, a caring man and was all about the greater good. He touched the lives of so many. A few years back he would spend Friday afternoons with my then ailing father. Knowing that this little visit gave so much to us. It gave dad a few hours or great conversation about old Eastie and it gave us respite. A year after dad passed John sent me a letter anonymously but written in a style that was all John. It was to comfort us, all while grieving the loss of his beloved wife. That’s just a small part of who he was.”
Mr. White was born on December 8, 1934 to the late Ellen C. (Dooley) and John T. White Sr. near the newly constructed Sumner Tunnel. He was raised in East Boston and attended neighborhood schools before attending Boston College High School and Boston College.
White would say his mother Ellen’s stories of the destruction of a thriving East Boston neighborhood to make way for the Sumner Tunnel project in the early 1930s influenced his later views on the injustices low-income residents face in the name of progress. With her sense of community and deep Catholic faith, Ellen instilled a sense of charity into her two sons that would ultimately set Mr. White on a lifetime odyssey to make a difference and be a voice for those whose voices were often not heard.
Mr. White became Director of APAC in the late 1960s and navigated the agency through the Nixon Administration and Reagan Administration’s social service budget cuts. During the 1972 Nixon budget cuts to funding that supported APAC programs, White and the staff decided to forgo their salaries and work as community volunteers in protest until funding was restored.
“John White was East Boston’s leading advocate for our new immigrants, our poor, our low income, or just about anyone needing help for whatever reason,” said former East Boston Little City Hall Manager during the Mayor White Administration Alice Christopher. “What a loss for all of us in East Boston.”
Mr. White emerged as one of the most recognizable faces in the neighborhood. It’s not because he looked for attention or craved praise, it was because he has touched the lives of thousands upon thousands of residents and their families. Mr. White was not a red tape bureaucrat who spent his career behind some desk at APAC pushing paper. Instead, Mr. White walked these streets for most of his life with one goal–to help people who need help or have no voice.
In the mid 2000s, Mr. White took a step back as Director of APAC to care for his ailing wife and love of his life, Eva, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
However, he was still present in the Meridian Street office a few days a week and spent a few years splitting his time as caretaker of both Eva and the neighborhood before her death in 2009.
Mr. White would say his wife was the person that most influenced him and his work throughout his career. Mr. White met Eva, a native of Dublin, Ireland, at a neighborhood party in the mid 1960s and they were married in 1969.
“When I would come home at night with my head in my hands, lamenting this failure and that failure, she would spend hours with me and send me back to work rejuvenated and ready to go at it again,” he once said after his wife’s passing. ““The greatest lesson she taught me was the lesson of love, how to love and how to be loved. Truth to tell, she took care of me. She did absolutely everything for me and then some.”
After Eva passed, Mr. White restlessness in semi-retirement took its toll and he was back at APAC almost everyday assisting and guiding the new Directors that succeeded him.
His career as the leading advocate for the poor culminated in 2017 when he celebrated his 50th anniversary at APAC. That year Mr. White’s career milestone was celebrated at that year’s Eastie Pride Day.
For the man that never wanted accolades or recognitions for work he thought all should do in some form or another, was celebrated by the community, elected officials and friends.
“He helped countless families in the neighborhood including my own,” said former City Councilor Sal LaMattina. “East Boston lost a great man and his legacy will live on forever.”
Before moving to Syracuse to be with his daughter and her family, Mr. White was still traveling down from his home in Winchester to support the new crop of programs aimed at helping those most in need like the East Boston Community Soup Kitchen.
“We lost a gem of our East Boston Community and a tremendous ally and mentor to me and my work with the EBCSK,” said EBCSK Founder Sandra Nijjar. “Words cannot describe the immense sadness in my heart to learn of his departure from this world. Know that I will never ever forget your advice and wisdom that you shared with me.”
While East Boston YMCA Director Joey Gaeta credited Mr. White with his start in social services.
“Growing up in East Boston everyone knew who John White was,” said Gaeta. “John was special and never looked for the spotlight. My first job at 14 was through APAC’s Summer Jobs program working at the East Boston Social Centers. After the job ended John made sure to check in on me every year after that. He made sure I went to college, he made sure I was okay and, as an Eastie kid, that was a big deal. He made you feel special, he made you feel present, he made you feel connected. But he did not just do this for me, he did this for all of us.”
In the end, we were lucky that Mr. White walked amongst us for so long because his work in Eastie was unparalleled, his motives were pure and his heart was filled with an undying passion to make life a little easier for those living in uneasy circumstances.
He was a friend to all, a mentor to many and will be missed dearly by the neighborhood he touched for so long.