Frank White photographed at his Madeira Park home in 1990 by Stephen Osborne. BELOW: Working on a truck. Clayton Bailey photograph. BOTTOM: Photo by Jan Brink.
By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
November 13, 2015
Frank White butchered hogs, delivered raw milk to dairies, hauled logs out of the woods, operated a waterworks, bit into the earth as an excavating contractor, and pumped gas at a station in a picturesque fishing village on the British Columbia coast.
Late in life, at age 99, he added bestselling author to his resumé with “Milk Spills and One-Log Loads” (Harbour, 2013), a thoroughly engaging memoir of his time as a pioneer trucker.
By the time he died on Oct. 18, at 101, he had a second title to his credit. with “That Went By Fast: My First Hundred Years.” He was thought to be the oldest active author in the province, if not the land.
The books resulted from a prize-winning autobiographical magazine article published in 1974. For nearly four decades, he wrote scattered notes to jog his memory, snippets of facts and details which read like found poetry.
After Mr. White reached his ninth decade, his son, the author and publisher Howard White, began tape recording his father's reminiscences, jogging the old man's memory with the lyric notes filled with haphazard punctuations and capitalizations — “Neighbor sawing wood at fence. We kids enjoy the noise and sawdust. … Cooking the small potatoes for the pigs, Breaking the windows. in the old house his father built.”
The son then transcribed the tapes, resulting in a 180,000-word manuscript. At first, the results disappointed the senior White.
“I can't believe a man's life can be made so small,” he complained.
The son read aloud the results to an audience of two — his father's second wife, the former New Yorker writer and one-time war correspondent Edith Iglauer, and their Filipina caregiver. Their approval convinced the subject his life was worthy of being shared.
The two volumes offer a rare glimpse into working-class life in a province where so many of those jobs have disappeared over the years. The elder White had lived so long his recollections of such things as logging with a winch known as a steam donkey crossed from the mundane to the historical.
Franklin Wetmore White was born three months before the outbreak of the First World War on May 9, 1914, to Jean Wetmore (née Carmichael) and Silas Franklin White. The family lived in Aldergrove in British Columbia's fertile Fraser Valley, although the boy was born just across the frontier at Sumas, Wash.
His father had an adventurous life, including a stint as a barnstorming prize fighter, who worked carnivals by taking on local farm boys and other tough guys. Once married and settled, he operated a butcher shop in which young Frank learned to slaughter hogs at a young age. The boy also sold magazine subscriptions door to door and became so adept a driving that he operated a truck for his father years before he could legally drive.
Many other jobs followed. He was an apprentice box-maker in British Columbia's bountiful Okanagan region, drove milk trucks, hauled freight, worked the woods as an independent, small-scale operator known as a gyppo logger.
“He was a working fool,” his son said. “He just worked and worked and worked. His whole life was about work.”
Known by his neighbours as a kindly and warm-hearted figure, he was also a voracious reader, though he mostly eschewed literature, preferring instead histories and obscure treatises on equipment and mechanical operations. For many years, he subscribed to Hansard, reading verbatim accounts of debates from the House of Commons in far-off Ottawa. These tended to occupy flat surfaces throughout his gas station, undoubtedly disappointing workers who used the men's room, where might be expected a more titillating publication.
|Frank White hugs Edith Iglauer.|
In 1939, Mr. White married Kathleen, known as Kay, Boley, a farmer's daughter with whom he had a successful union until her death in 1978. A few years later, while on a bus trip to New York City, he called on Ms. Iglauer, a widow who maintained homes in Manhattan and on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast. He told her he wanted to see the opera, about which he knew nothing other than it was one of her preferred entertainments. Theirs was a Green Acres relationship — he had spent years in logging camps with the manners to prove it, a self-described “bush ape,” while she travelled in the sophisticated milieu of the sorts who not only read the New Yorker, but produced it. He found in her a firecracker of enthusiasms for the arts, while she found in him a kindly, generous autodidact whose lack of formal education had not restricted an inquisitive mind. He had even built an early computer from designs in a magazine, using the machine to record the notes used in his memoirs.
Mr. White died at his home in Garden Bay, B.C. He leaves Ms. Iglauer, whom he married in 2006 after a long courtship; a daughter, Marilyn Plant; sons Don White and Howard White; six grandchildren; and, eight great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his first wife and by daughter Cynthia (Cindy) Wilson, who died in 2005. He was also predeceased by five siblings, including Wesley James White, a lance sergeant who was captured at Hong Kong and died of diphtheria in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1942.
While he rarely left British Columbia in his first 60 years, Mr. White travelled extensively afterwards. On a trip to India, he could not bring himself to hire pedicabs, seeing it as too exploitive a mode of transportation. One day in Delhi, though, he got lost and in desperation engaged a pedicab to return to his hotel. Mr. White insisted on exiting the pedicab at the foot of every hill; he also insisted on buying the driver a meal at the hotel. In turn, the driver invited Mr. White to join his family for dinner at their home, which turned out to be a spot on the sidewalk on which he dined on chicken and vegetables, the most memorable meal of his sojourn.