PIH co-founder Thomas J. White passed away on January 7, 2011. Fellow PIH co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer delivered the following eulogy at the funeral mass on Tuesday, January 11, at Saint Ignatius Loyola Church in Newton, MA.
We are gathered today to praise a great man and a great friend. Tom White lived a long and full life and was surrounded at the end of it by those he loved and who loved him unstintingly in return, and we take comfort in these truths. It’s also true that Tom’s greatest gift, his empathy, made him spurn self-satisfaction and led him to a certain restlessness and anxiety. His ability to identify with those in trouble and in need, and to struggle with doubt and anxiety, made him a complex man, certainly, but also one of the great figures of our time.
Tom was a great man by conventional criteria but mistrusted, most of his life, these criteria. He was, as has been noted far and wide, a successful businessman who mistrusted the trappings of wealth and served as a model for spreading it around. He was a Harvard graduate who by his own account didn’t study much; a decorated soldier who was at heart a pacifist; a successful businessman who relied on generosity and trust in all his dealings; a devout Catholic who acknowledged crises of faith and knew the sharp limitations of all human institutions; and a family man with a large family here in this city and, thanks to his family’s willingness to share him, scattered throughout the wide world. Then there was Tom’s personality: conflict-averse but willing to resolve conflicts; quick to laughter, but sometimes irascible; impatient but steady; generous and loving but needing reassurance.
Tom was less a contradiction and more a model of and for what generosity, compassion and service can mean in this world. He changed our lives by straining the meanings of these very words: generosity, compassion, service.
How do you measure compassion and goodness? As fond as Tom was of precision, his stock in trade as a builder, he was deeply mistrustful of confident answers to this question. Long before he knew success in business, Tom was asking hard questions about how best to live in a world in which it was simply not possible to be “freed from all anxiety.” In an era in which formulas for philanthropy are now advanced with great and undue assurance, Tom rejected pat answers to complex questions. For someone who loved numbers and worked closely with engineers to build sturdy bridges and tunnels and buildings, he was always the first to admit there was no unfailing algebra of decency, no unbending geometry of the heart, no unyielding calculus of compassion.
Tom knew the math but also taught many of us (to borrow from Ephesians) that we sometimes see best with the eyes of the heart. He did not, in his charitable work, take shortcuts or avoid the hard process of discernment. Tom knew that everyone in this world can and does suffer, but he also knew that some suffer more than others and that many suffer injustice. Discernment led him over time to what these days might be termed a strategic vision for giving, towards what theologians term “a preferential option for the poor.” He was drawn most to the immediacies of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty, housing the homeless, visiting the prisoners and the sick, and burying the dead. From this list of the corporal works of mercy springs the much longer list of Tom’s investments in literally thousands of charitable works.
Looking around us this morning, where few to none of us are hungry or homeless or naked or in prison, it’s clear that Tom’s generosity did not require proximity. His imagination, the eyes of his heart, allowed him to understand suffering unlike any he had seen, even in the theatre of war. That’s why his generosity was legendary not just here in his hometown, but around the world. I hope I might be forgiven for commenting on his work in international health, since that’s what we did together for almost 30 years. It was something of a lost cause when Tom first lent his time and backing to us. Over the past few days, Partners In Health, which Tom founded and funded, has received messages of sympathy and support from Peru, Rwanda, Lesotho, Russia, and, especially, from Haiti. Allow me to indulge in what Tom would term running the numbers: by our count, the organization he founded has built or refurbished some 60 hospitals and clinics, scores of schools and community centers, and employs, in over a dozen countries, more than 13,000 people. As Jim Kim noted in speaking to the Boston Globe, Tom’s early investments in taking proper care of people living in poverty and with chronic disease led directly to major changes in the way global health is delivered, saving millions of lives already and promising to save millions more.
It is not surprising that many of Tom’s friends from Haiti and Peru, including Father Fritz Lafontant and Dr. Jaime Bayona, have flown up here to mark his passing, for Tom has been nothing if not constant in his support for those who have not enjoyed, as he might say, a fair shake. And although Tom rarely allowed us to put his name on buildings, the medical directors, past and present, of Haiti’s Thomas J. White Pavilion are all here today.
And Tom never, ever stopped giving of his time and dwindling treasure, and urging others to join him, even as many of his projects took on dimensions he could not have foreseen and even as such efforts found new supporters from across the world. Here is a letter he sent to Ophelia Dahl just a couple of weeks ago:
Janice is sending $5,000 separately through Fidelity. On this Christmas 2010, it’s the only way I can express my appreciation and the joy that I receive in working for you and your jolly elves. I feel like Al and Diane [Kaneb] and you are family.
Approximately 30 years ago, when joining in with you, Paul, Jim and Todd, I received a tremendous gift. For the first time in my life, I was able to give with complete confidence that my donations would be used in the best possible way.
So, Merry Christmas, and thank you to you founders mentioned above and to all the unbelievably compassionate, faithful, hardworking, intelligent people who are the guts of PIH. My role is pretty much played out, but on to the future!
Peace, light, love, happiness to all of you extraordinary people,
Others gathered in this church have similar stories of Tom’s involvement in their causes. He is a hero, but not an unsung one. Because of this constancy and consistency, Tom has been acknowledged as one of the world’s visionary philanthropists. From his hometown paper to Time magazine, from Presidents Clinton to Aristide, from Harvard and BC to small schools in Lima and central Haiti, from Roxbury to Rwanda, Tom White has been justly lionized as, to use an Ignatian expression, a man for others. He secretly relished this praise even as he shirked it.
But tenacious and discerning generosity does not capture Thomas J. White as a person any more than does his ambivalent response to honors and recognition. Even though he often bemoaned mean-spirited policies and the suffering of the poor, Tom disliked sanctimony. He was also a lot of fun to be around. Just as he could cry when confronted with the pain of others, so too could he laugh himself into a wheezing fit. He liked especially to laugh at his own jokes, as his family knows well; he liked to retell old stories.
Tom may have liked his own jokes and tales, but he had a way of making people feel valued. Here too, he was discerning, and he sometimes tried the patience of those closest to him by paying special attention to those he saw as undervalued in this world. Every doorman and waiter and parking valet from Cambridge to Newton to Osterville to Jupiter (meaning the town in Florida if not the planet) knew Tom White. Sometimes his compulsive giving was downright embarrassing. I’m not talking about his fifty-dollar tips at McDonald’s or the bright red wagon he gave to a homeless woman who had expressed her desire for one. Who among you has been in a car with Tom at the wheel as he drove through a tollbooth on the Mass Pike and tipped a confused attendant? Tom was probably the only person in all of eastern Massachusetts to be deeply disappointed when an electronic pass was affixed to the windshield of his car.
But Tom didn’t reserve his kindness for the needy alone. He struggled, in the true sense, to pay close attention to those around him. The large, blended family brought together by Tom knew this, as did his friends and business associates. There are, sitting in this church, men and women of privilege and renown who sought and received Tom’s compassion and guidance. There are young doctors whose education he supported quietly, middle-class families who turned to him when they needed someone to co-sign a loan, and young business leaders who started successful ventures in fields little known to Tom, but who still turned to him for guidance both personal and professional.
And Tom had a charming way with young children. For years his car trunk was full of jumbo-sized packets of gum and candies for his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and for others. When our daughter, Catherine, was six or so, we went to Cape Cod for a family break. This was the year Tom and Lo-e sold their big house in Osterville so that they could give away more money—Tom’s real vocation and one in which Lo-e supported him without complaint as they moved over the years into smaller and smaller houses. But as Tom was no ascetic and loved to swim, this new smaller house had a new smaller pool. Catherine, after splashing in it with joy, asked him, “Papa Tom, did you make this pool just for me?” Tom looked her in the eye and said, convincingly, “Of course I did, dear. Just for you.”
Last Wednesday night, I recalled this story in a phone call from Rwanda, as we struggled to say goodbye to one another. He was trying to make it easier for me, letting me make him laugh one last time (I’d tell you how I did so if we were not in a church). “Love ya, kid,” were his last words to me. Both of us knew they would be.
Tom struggled with goodbyes. Nothing made him happier than fixing a problem, but there were some he could not fix, and he confronted these too. When he could not save a life, or ease a loved one’s pain, he was still left with his ministry of showing up. Each of his children and stepchildren, his sisters and brothers, knew that Tom would always show up in a pinch. When his daughter was losing, over seven grueling weeks, her own newborn daughter, Tom rallied to her and her family, showing up at the hospital every day. Each morning Tom, who asked the big questions as often as anyone and knew better than most that some of them were unanswerable, could be found boiling an egg for Janice and then completing the care package with a ripe banana and a single multivitamin.
Through his ministry of showing up, through his extraordinary largesse and discernment, through his loyalty and love, through his struggle with self-doubt, through his faith in others, Tom restored our faith in faith itself. At least, he restored mine.
He would likely be embarrassed by such professions. I’ve used the word anxiety more than once. Were Tom sitting here in a pew, he’d be fretting. He didn’t like big gatherings and had a morbid fear of public speaking and ambivalence about public accolade, whether for his charitable work or for his business success. For the past 16 years, we have gathered from around the world to bestow the Thomas J. White Prize. Every year, a month before the date, we would begin a process of asking if Tom would show. Since showing up was one of his practices, he usually did, and this past year made one of his last public appearances in order to pay tribute to his Haitian friends, including Father Fritz, for their courageous labor after the earthquake. But he’d let us know that public appearances messed up his very physiology.
For a man who jumped in Normandy, Tom sure did get nervous. It was the same in the other circles in which he moved. Peter and Kevin and others in the family business will remember his trepidation when he was to be honored in New York by a group of heavy contractors, “The Moles.” They and his close doctor friends and family heard in great detail a recounting of his every symptom of autonomic overdrive.
To restore his calm, to master a mild case of chronic hypochondria, Tom turned to routine and rituals. I refer here not to his love of Church rites, about which others, including the Jesuits he loved so much, can better testify. I refer, rather, to his ritual beer at the end of the day. As the years marched on, as he grew fixed in his ways, he liked most of all to have a beer at precisely 6:15 and to watch Wheel of Fortune with Lo-e, relishing a bit of peace and quiet and Vanna White—no relation.
If I were to conjure just one image of Tom, it would not be of him in his office at J.F. White, or having a sandwich at Partners In Health, or hauling medical supplies for Haiti around in a teal-blue Mercedes, or in Osterville surrounded by children, his and hers, and in-laws and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. These are all vivid images, but none comes to mind quite so quickly as Tom in his reclining chair, slippered feet up, sipping on a beer while shuffling through his papers. Last Wednesday marked the last time he got up to his chair for his nightly beer. Perhaps this more than anything signaled that he was ready to return to his maker.
Restless Tom resting in his chair: we can close our eyes and see you best with our hearts, Tommy, just as you saw best with yours.
To Tom’s large and generous family, here is another chance to say thank you for sharing Tom with us. It’s not easy being the wife or child or grandchild or sibling, niece or nephew of a man for others. Never believe for a minute that any of Tom’s beneficiaries and co-workers and friends took for granted your own profound generosity. It will be a mistake to try and thank you all by name, as there are, by my count, over 80 of you linked by blood and union: Whites and Sullivans and Fiskes and Judges and Wattendorfs and Caseys and Lyons. Thank you Peter, Kevin, Stephen, Carol, Janice, Denise, and Christina and spouses and children; thank you to your mother; thank you G.V., Terry, Mary, Celia, Vickie, and Georgia, and your spouses and children; thank you Mary and Sarah Lyons and Margie Casey. And thank you especially to Lo-e, who for decades believed in Tom as he went about believing in others. As your granddaughter reminded me yesterday, building this huge family required generosity from all, a veritable cascade of generosity as Tom’s family shared him with yours, and yours shared you with Tom’s, and as generations learned from both of your examples.
My last words are directed heavenward, for that’s surely where Tom belongs. Thank you, Tom, for helping us to be the people we seek to be. Thank you for giving so many people a fair shake and for awakening so many to the cause of justice and mercy. Thank you for telling us that it’s OK to fall short or to stumble. Thank you for acknowledging that there is no clear calculus of compassion, no price tag set on the love of one’s fellow humans.
Few of your fellows will meet your measure, but then we all know that you would be the first to remind us that goodness, like mercy, is hard to measure.
Rest in peace, Tom, free from all anxiety.