He Walked with Kings and Vagabonds
For many years Bob had a message that he wanted to be known, far and wide: “When I die,” he said, “tell them to bury me with my face down so everyone can kiss my ass.”
He carried his irreverence as a shield to protect himself in a society where injustice and alienation are commonplace.
But Bob, born Robert White, was not going to be anybody’s victim, not in Montreal, where he was born and bred and walked the streets with kings and vagabonds.
In fact, he fashioned a life that allowed him to carve out a special piece of this city and make it his own.
And among the multitudes with which he crossed paths along his remarkable life’s journey, many will testify on his concern for the under-privileged, his boundless kindness and his limitless reservoir of knowledge.
On Friday, November 4, Bob died peacefully at the Montreal Neurological Institute, exactly one week after suffering a massive brain aneurysm. He was 81 years old.
In the almost 50 years that he has been in and around the city, Bob has been best known for his efforts in helping dozens of student-athletes further their education and excel in football and basketball here and in U.S. universities.
Among those who made a name for themselves in colleges and universities across North America and will forever profess their unwavering loyalty to Bob are Trevor Williams and Wayne Yearwood, two former Canadian Olympic basketballers, Aubrey Merriman, who went on to earn a Ph.D. at MIT, Tommy Kane, a former star at Syracuse University and one of the first Montrealers to play in the NFL.
Bob’s son Shawn White had a stand out career as a running back/wide receiver at St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia before trying out in the Canadian Football League
But those are the ones in the spotlight. Behind them are hundreds if not thousands of other Montrealers, who benefitted in one way or the other from Bob’s never ending generosity. Speak to any of the kids growing up in the then hardscrabble neighborhoods around the St. Henri district and they will tell of the much-appreciated support received from Bob and his Westend Sports Association (WESA).
He formed the association in 1974, to assist youth and families in and around Little Burgundy, a neighborhood then mired in poverty and desperation with a juvenile delinquency ratio that was the highest in Montreal.
Statistics Canada showed an annual per capita income in the area of around $5,000 Through WESA he kept a hand extended to those who needed help to put food on the table or to meet other emergencies, including burying their dearly departed or sending their children to camps.
He had a soft spot particularly for students-athletes because he saw the benefit of sports as a way to self-improvement. So he never missed an opportunity to assist as many as he can financially, or to be there as a mentor and guide.
For those of us who were on campus at Concordia in the early 1980s during the stand against South Africa’s Apartheid government and the calls for divestment, Bob’s support was constant.
His ability to help stemmed from the intricate network that he has been able to build from the people and resources he accumulated during a lifetime in this city. He moved easily between the corporate, political, professional sports and media worlds, calling in favors from the captains of industry, politicians and big leaguers all of whom have been more than happy to accommodate “Whitey.”
It’s probably true to say that no other Montrealer was as connected as Bob White. His reach into major league baseball and basketball is deep and extensive as it is in the front offices of many of the top colleges and universities in the USA.
Back in the day, no major sporting figure or entertainer passed through Montreal without connecting with Bob White. He had stories to tell about stars such as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Johnny Rodgers, John Carlos, Nate Archibald, Bill Cosby, Lou Gossett and countless others.
And very few of them escaped his pitch to assist his various causes here in Montreal.
Bob: “Hey Bill (Cosby), come on man, you have to do something to assist the under-privileged kids in the city.”
Bill : Hey Bob, you’re hustling right. (Bob nods). I’m hustling too Bob… we’re all hustling Bob… at different levels.
Bob: You’re hustling too Bill…? Okay Bill…
Probably he was not successful in that encounter with Cosby but when Bob is on the prowl he is hardly ever deterred, especially around the Holidays when he collects truckloads of foodstuff, clothing and other supplies all of which make it into the homes of those in need across the city.
Born in Montreal, Bob grew up in a household where giving was part of the daily ritual.
His father Ben White, a Jamaican immigrant, ran a small grocery store in the Little Burgundy area. The store became a gathering point for veterans coming back from the war and facing alienation here and became the place where the Veteran’s Taxi Company was formed.
It was also a refuge for Montrealers in need and for newcomers to the city.
He grew up as a highly skilled swimmer and was a member of the YMCA’s swim and water polo teams at a time when few Blacks had that privilege.
His capacity as a swimmer helped him serve as Aquatic Director of the Harlem YMCA in New York City. And he spoke regularly of his time in that city and his exposure to the civil rights movement there, and listening and learning from the great Malcolm X and others.
He carried the influences of the U.S. civil rights struggles with him in Montreal and never saw a Black cause he didn’t connect with, although he was always mindful of the goodness and kindness of people of all races and cultures.
Bob’s connection to the community heightened when he began writing for the Montreal Community CONTACT almost 20 years ago and easily stood out as our most influential columnist.
Today, with his passing, an ever-increasing flow of readers are coming forward to repeat the same line: “I’ve never met Bob White but I feel as if I know him from his columns. It’s the first thing I read in the CONTACT.”
Bob’s impact on Montreal and Montrealers reaches deep into the core of the city. He gave so much more than he took and will be remembered for his abiding love to those around him.
He leaves to mourn his life partner Linda Bernier, his loving children Shawn and Sabrina, brother William, sister -in – law Deborah (Roy) nephews Nathan and Garrett.
The family extends a special thank you to the doctors and nurses at the Montreal Neurological Hospital 4 South for the compassionate care they offered Bob.
In lieu of flowers donations in his memory can be made to Westend Sports Association or the Montreal Neurological Hospital.
Remembering Uncle Bob White
“It Was Always About Helping People”
When Bobby White passed away last Friday morning on Nov.4 /2016, it wasn’t just the passing of a community icon, founder of the Westend Sports Association, Head of The Ways And Means Committee or even Montreal Community Contact columnist, it was the passing of my friend.
“Uncle Bob” was a lot of things to many people in this city. He helped young athletes acquire sports scholarships, fed hungry families during the holidays, paid for funerals, bailed individuals out from incarceration and helped people acquire everything from employment to legal counsel and from experience to knowledge.
And he didn’t always do it in the way many approved.
Bottom line was, he got the job done.
In 2002, I was in the biggest crossroads test of my life. I was working as a broadcaster and Program-Director at CKRK(K-103) in Kahnwake and doing some other work on the side to supplement my income.
When because of certain circumstances, I was forced to file for divorce but more importantly file for immediate custody of my 5 year-old daughter, my first real true test of being a man and more importantly a father were not at stake.
I was a man in my early 30’s at the time and to be quite frank, not really a man yet until I would go through this emotional ordeal and come out with the job done and the mission accomplished.
And like most angels who appear in the darkest hour, Bob was there.
To quote 13th century Persian poet and Islamic scholar Jalal ad-Dim Muhammad Rumi: “The wound is where The Light enters you”.
Bob was able to get me an attorney who allowed me to pay off my legal fees which were not light but nonetheless were paid off to the last cent.
Besides getting me a lawyer, it was the moral support of Uncle Bob and Auntie Linda that got me through the ordeal.
I won the case and sole custody of my daughter who I raised on my own with the Godsend help of my parents and today she is in University, studying to be a teacher, working part-time with the same company and driving her own car.
Bob and Linda as well as family friend Amy Fleisher, attended my daughter’s high school graduation and Auntie Linda whispered in my ear as I watched teary-eyed as my daughter accepted her high school diploma while they played the grad theme, “you did it”, she said. And I answered back, “Not without you and Bob”
Bob came up from the streets, both in Montreal and in Harlem, New York. The streets were the only way he knew how to gauge situations in life. But more often than not, he made himself appear to be more ruthless than he ever was. It was the code of the streets. But really, he had a heart of gold and never missed the opportunity to help someone if he could.
Oh Montreal Community Contact readers were sometimes appalled about the way he expressed things in his columns. “Divisive” some would say. “Rough language” or “street talk”. I noticed however nobody ever said what he said was not the truth.
Malcolm X. used to say, “you don”t need no switch blade, all you need is the truth, the man can put in jail for carrying a blade but he can’t put you in jail for telling the truth”.
Uncle Bob used to actually hear him say those words on a soap box on 125th Street in Harlem, New York when Bob used to live “Uptown” where he taught swimming at The Harlem Y.M.C.A.
We all used to hear Bob say the same things over and over: “You gotta get the monnnnnnnay” or “don’t do anything without an ulterior motive”. That’s what he wanted you to believed was the code he lived his life by. But it wasn’t. He just wanted you to think that.
Bob helped people that he could gain nothing from. He certainly couldn’t gain anything from me. All I could offer him was respect.
He got that from his father Benjamin White, born at the turn of the century in Jamaica.
When Benjamin White set up a grocery store in the Little Burgundy area of Montreal, all he did was help people. Even giving groceries to families he knew would never be able to pay him back. When Black WW II soldiers who came back from the war and couldn’t get jobs as cabbie he set up the Veterans Taxi company that immediately put Black men to work.
I don’t know what Bob anyone else knows. I’ll tell you the Bob I know. When Bob lived in Harlem and worked part-time at the Harlem Hospital in admissions, he saw a young Black teen come into emergency bleeding to death after a terrible accident. Bob knowing the teen from the Harlem YMCA, knew the young boy was of The Jehovah’s Witness faith. Bob who was responsible for taking the information for patients being treated for in the E.R. knew that J.W.’s don’t allow blood transfusions and that saving the boy’s life might depend on one. Without the parents being there, Bob took it upon himself to write “unknown” in the area of the E.R. registration sheet where it says “religion”.
That’s the Uncle Bob I know…..
Tribute to Bob White –
A Great Leader and Legendary Patriarch
Many of us had the privilege and pleasure of knowing Bob White in a variety of roles. I have been privileged to know him as my mentor, coach, noble friend, and surrogate father; or when I was a child, he was better known as “Bobby.”
It is within this context I shall share of the greatness of this man. Upon reflecting what I would say about the uniqueness of Bob White, I have chosen, as best as I know how, to stay away from trite expressions.
Instead, my desire is for you to see through the eyes of many of us who have learned, and in my case, are still learning to love, appreciate, and honor him as I have grown older.
But before I embark on this journey, I want to ask: when you hear the name Bob White, what words immediately come to mind? For me, there is no single word to choose from. Let me share a few words that come to mind: Great Leader.
Great leaders are gifted with an ability to unlock what is bound up in others, and of course, if they themselves could explain this gift, great leadership could be bottled, packaged, and perhaps we’d have more of them. Great leaders, like Bob, are born, not made. You perceive it immediately, once in their presence, a sort of magnetic effect of personality.
Yet, as a runny nose, pudgy nine-year-old boy navigating the world through a Little Burgundy lens, I was somewhat ambivalent about Bob White in the beginning. In a short period of time, I was drawn to Bob’s insatiable and selfless desire to right wrongs, and lend a hand wherever and whenever needed.
While we were originally brought together for basketball purposes, I soon began to learn from Bob’s perspectives, his wealth of knowledge, and his unique activism – that will always be fundamental for my understanding of the world. I am a proud, card carrying member of the Westend Sports Association (“WESA”) alumni network. As impressive as WESA was in producing top-notch student-athletes both in Canada and United States, ironically, it wasn’t specifically about sports or charity. It was about equity. Bob and WESA gave young people the opportunity to strengthen the skills they needed to succeed in school and in life.
Bob was a larger-than-life figure. He expected greatness because he saw greatness in you even before you could see it; he helped to unearth your potential, he fought tirelessly to forge opportunities and remove obstacles. Bob was all about leveling the playing field. The lesson was clear: Bob was going to do everything in his power to level the playing field for us; what we did on that leveled playing field was up to us. Bob was also generous and gracious to those who worked with him, treating us like members of an extended family. I’m so grateful to his wife, Linda and his son, Shawn for sharing Bob with so many of us.
Bob was always on the move, off to conquer the next obstacle. Bob was always about getting better every day in every way. The challenge we all faced was how to say or do something interesting enough to get Bob’s attention. Perhaps the greatest thing about Bob was that it was so easy to be a part of his team. Bob was always recruiting–which is to say, he was always reaching out and finding people.
As soon as you met Bob, he was inspiring you, like it or not, peering into what made you tick, and filling that ticker with his enthusiasm which poured out of him in a wild spray of language. Bob never met a microphone or media platform that he couldn’t leverage.
Bob was one of a kind, a singular, dominant intellect: a one -man social enterprise revolutionary. Bob was a walking database of world history, black history, Montreal history, and Little Burgundy history. Bob would eat revisionist history for lunch on a bad day. Bob understood the politics and the social conditions that created the oppressive systems that many of us failed to or did not want to recognize. His revolutionary mindset was scary to the establishment.
Bob’s brand of pedagogy was vibrant and in your face. Bob had iron in him, and he resisted the outrage of the injustice with extraordinary courage and bravery. Bob was not perfect. He was someone who survived the rough and tumble that life threw at him. And yet, hidden underneath the imperfection was a ‘diamond from the rough’.
Bob was brilliant, intuitive and often impossibly impenetrable, and for all those reasons he was a towering figure in my life. As my own career developed, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the enormous influence he’s had on my life. Bob helped so many people transform what they believed was possible for themselves.
When you ended any conversation with Bob, you walked away with your head held a little higher, your shoulders back a little farther, your chest puffed out a little bigger, and your body filled with a jolt of inspiration and personal pride. In many respects, impressing Bob was what it was all about for many of us whose lives he helped to transform.
Now, 40 years later, I would always look forward to sharing any of my accomplishments with him – with a deep recognition that any accomplishment was success that was shared with him. Bob stay connected, whether through sending books, DVDs, newspaper articles, and coveted editions of the Community Contact.
As if this wasn’t enough, he provided many opportunities for me to lend my thoughts to the generative discussions of the ‘Ways and Means Committee’ whenever they convened at the barbershop.
People saw Bob in different ways, but in the final analysis, all will invariably agree that Bob was uncompromising in his service to those around him and to his community. You can tell the greatness of man’s life, not so much by his material wealth or glorious estates.
On the contrary, the greatness of a man is the legacy he leaves behind. Bob White may have never been rich with money, yet look at the numbers of people he genuinely touched and the great many deposits he made into our souls. With that said, Bob was a very rich man. I know that my thoughts are embarrassingly inadequate in providing ample recognition of the qualities of our late, legendary, noble friend and great leader.
And while I will miss him as a mentor, coach, teacher of life, father figure, and friend, I’m comforted by the knowledge that his accomplishments, intellect, and his legacy are enduring, and will continue to be exemplified through the very best in us.
Bob’s pulse will still beat in the center of every person he touched, unlocking us, giving us strength, joy and life.
Aubrey Merriman – is CEO, Boys and Girls Clubs and a Westend Sports Association Alumnus.
Bob White: A Critical voice that never lost focus
It seems that I have been having discussions and debates with Bob White forever. Many people took sides in a personal way. But when I look back on many of the Community Contact writings that we were involved in, while many were personal they were never disrespectful of person.
His voice represented the voice of many persons in the Black community that have no way of making themselves heard.
These are the voices of the disenfranchised who often assign responsibility to those they perceived to be playing the Moses role to get the dispossessed and the “wretched of the earth” out of the hell of Pharoah’s land and prisons of hopelessness.
I frequently disagreed with his short-term economic solutions, and was frustrated by the repeating cycles of pain in the voices coming from the spaces of the “Barbershop.” The tone of despair seemed to fill the rafters.
As Sparrow would say “the same melody” repeated itself. But the debate at the Barbershop kept us in touch with how the poor and those on welfare and the victims of drug abuse viewed the world that many of us often used theory and rational arguments to describe in regulated patterns of observation. He lived among the poor. He was very active in trying to help the poor, and he was critical of the organizational leadership that he believed to be self-serving.
He assigned himself the responsibility for directly and in many instances personally reminding us that we are Black, and must act Black, that the privileged persons among us should understand and address the needs of the poor. Like all human beings he wanted to be recognized and worked at creating a legacy of his presence here in the struggle for life, liberty and the happiness that comes with purpose, our contributions and achievement.
He once left a parcel of copies of documents and congratulatory letters from several credible sources about community work at my office, in which he was successfully engaged in helping youth and poor people.
I continued to disagree with his underscoring of the achievements of Blacks in the increasing economic and social turbulence of North America and Montreal environments, but I developed a better human understanding of the nature of his personal struggle and his search for purpose and the self.
He will physically not walk among us. But hopefully we will, from his walk among us, distill and remember the good he strove and struggled to achieve.