By Tracy Kidder
I first met Tom White 11 years ago, at his modest office astride the Massachusetts Turnpike. I asked him to tell me about the early days of Partners In Health. He more than obliged me. He told me wonderful stories, some funny, some moving, some a bit of both. The best stories are often their own best explanations, but not always. For me, one deep and lasting mystery lay behind everything Tom told me.
Recalling his first meetings with Paul Famer, Tom said, "Paul was a lot younger than me, but he was way ahead of me, on service to the poor." He smiled and went on, with a trace of wistfulness in his voice: "Sometimes I think how much money I used to have, before I met Paul Farmer." Then he added, "But that's all right. They give me a big steak now, and I can only eat half of it." He also said that he intended to leave this life without a nickel, and I gathered that he had already gone a long way toward accomplishing that goal.
Tom had been instrumental in founding PIH and in advising its other much younger founders, and over the years he had given millions and millions of dollars to support its powerful, indeed often seminal projects. He wasn't sure of the exact amount he had given but guessed it might be as much as $50 million.
I wondered at Tom's generosity. Why had he given away all that money, on behalf of strangers who were mostly situated in foreign lands? It seemed like a simple question, but Tom had no answer for it. For myself, I've come to feel that there probably isn't a satisfactory, general explanation for generosity. But it is enough to know that generosity like Tom White's exists, and not just generosity but generosity that is careful to ally itself with competence and ingenuity and idealism. In a world that often seems to be governed by violence and chaos, this is the greatest gift Tom leaves behind.
Tracy Kidder is the author of the bestselling novel Mountains Beyond Mountains.