Machiavelli’s famous words in The Prince said, “I hold it to be true that fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less,” Dr. John A. White believes that this quote defines his career.
Dr. John A. White claims that a cold, rainy Saturday morning in 1961 changed the trajectory of his career and life. He explained the Machiavelli quote and expressed that so much of his life’s success is thanks to fortunate moments. White is my grandfather, affectionately known as “Grandy” by his four grandchildren. I sat down with my grandfather over Thanksgiving, while we gathered as a family on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and asked him to explain the course of his career.
Dr. John Austin White Jr. was born and raised in Portland, Arkansas, his parents were educators and at the age of 77, he received the University of Arkansas’ Baum Faculty Teaching Award. With over 50 years of experience in education, White was honored for his gift in teaching.
“In 1963 I was working for the Tennessee Eastman Company and had just proposed to my wife of 55 years. My boss at the time Herb Manning went fishing on a rainy Saturday morning with a friend of his. This friend was the department head of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. He was going to need a substitute teacher for the spring semester. For some reason, Manning thought of me and he told him that he had a hardworking employee who he should ask. I had no classroom experience at the time, but this turn of events sparked a love of teaching for me,” said White.
White received his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Arkansas in 1962, he went on to receive his master’s degree from Virginia Tech in 1966 and his doctorate degree in 1969 from Ohio State University.
“While I was teaching engineering at Virginia Tech, I was able to receive my master’s degree. This led me to Ohio State for my doctorate, because I knew that I wanted to teach, and if I wanted to do it well, I need my doctorate degree,” explained White.
White says that there are so many opportunities in our lives to wonder what might have been. In 1975 David Baker, the dean of engineering at Virginia Tech, died in a plane crash. The following fall, Wolt Fabricky, who was White’s master’s adviser and a teacher of descriptive geometry also died in a plane crash. Suddenly White became the top person in his field in the world, known as “material-handling” back then, but today is known as “logistics”. With the death of his two colleagues, he began traveling the world internationally to conferences and summits, teaching on the subject.
In 1977, White sold his consulting company in Atlanta to an accounting firm, and once again dedicated his career solely to teaching. He became a professor at Georgia Tech for Industrial Engineering.
“Life turns on little moments that you would not give much thought to at the time. While I was with Georgia Tech, the Atlanta magazine approached me. They were doing a feature on a couple of individuals that they considered to be Atlanta’s best and brightest, and they decided to include me. This opened the door to more opportunities for me like going to Renaissance Weekend on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, in 1980 and meeting Bill and Hillary Clinton.”
Bill and Hillary Clinton nominated White to be a candidate for Chancellor at the University of Arkansas in 1980, but White rejected the nomination because he loved the classroom and being at Georgia Tech.
“Mary Lib and I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1988 for two years for me to work with the National Science Foundation. Something that stood out to me was that engineering was not attracting many minorities or women. I wanted to change this, and I pushed hard for them. I was awarded the distinguished service award by the National Science Foundation for his work with minorities and women in the engineering industry,” said White.
The students and people have always been what has pushed White to keep going and keep teaching. In 1996, White was nominated again by the Clintons to come to his alma mater The University of Arkansas as chancellor.
“I was against it for so long, and turned down the search committee four times because I can’t stand the politics,” explained White.
However, when he visited the University of Arkansas and he started meeting students that were so bright but didn’t have the same caliber of education and opportunities at places like Georgia Tech, he knew he had to come and give back to the university.
“My one demand was that I could keep on teaching while being chancellor. I taught one three-hour class every week as chancellor, and it was the best three hours of the week for me,” explained White.
White’s goals as chancellor were to give academics the attention that it deserved, at a school where athletics was the main focus for the Board of Trustees. He also wanted to stay in the classroom. He saw teaching while being chancellor, a way to keep him connected to the students and helped him be an advocate for the undergraduate’s needs.
Today, White is still teaching Introduction to Engineering at the University of Arkansas, after twenty-two years. He also teaches a class on leadership and loves bringing in influential people in his life, that his students can learn from.
“I am thankful for each tiny event in my life that has taught me that ultimately my purpose in life besides being a husband and father, is to be a teacher,” explained White.