White used athletics to pave the way for his success in life
By MARK RICE
He was the son of a domestic servant and reared in public housing, but Eugene White became a public servant -- and a pioneer among African-American educators.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Ledger-Enquirer
White was the first of his race in Indiana to attain various positions as he climbed the administrative ladder in public schools, including the first black Indiana Superintendent of the Year. He also is the state's only two-time winner, once from a suburban district and once from an urban district.
His educational honors culminated in 2009, when he was runner-up for the National Superintendent of the Year award.
Sure, the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame put him in its 2013 class for his athletic achievements at South Girard High School in Phenix City and Alabama A&M, but White's ultimate goal as he starred on the basketball court and baseball and football fields was success in life.
Sports glory was the means to get there.
"Our primary role models were preachers and teachers and coaches," White said. "We didn't know any architects or engineers or philanthropists. I think that had a heavy impression on me."
White will be inducted into the CVSHF Saturday night at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center along with Willie Bowman, Charles Ragsdale, Lewis Colbert and Joe Lee Dunn.
White was a 6-foot-2, 190-pound starting guard on the South Girard basketball team that won the black Alabama state championship in 1966, his senior year. He was a high scorer on the court and in the classroom. He led the Alabama A&M basketball team (1966-70) in points per game and grade-point average, graduated with academic honors and was inducted into the school's
hall of fame.
"He was the epitome of the student athlete," said Claude English, who was the star forward on that 1966 South Girard team and played one season in the NBA after the expansion Portland Trail Blazers selected him in the seventh round of the 1970 draft and before a knee injury ended his career. Now, he is the athletic director at Park University in Parkville, Mo.
Segregation kept White and his peers from gaining the attention their performances deserved then. It took 36 years for the 1966 title team members to get state championship rings. Statistics and other information about their history are scarce now. But nothing can take away the memories made, friendships forged, lessons learned.
"I can't imagine having any more success than I had," White said. " I was pleased and thankful for my blessings. I look at the SEC, and I know those young men are standing on the shoulders of others who went before them."
White never lived with his father. He was born to a single, 17-year-old mother who had only an eighth-grade education but seemed to have a doctorate in wisdom. With unyielding authority, she demanded White and his sister, Dorothy, graduate from high school. And with gentle encouragement, she showed them how to see through the blight and seek the light.
"My mother taught us how to appreciate the blessings we had," said White, who was the first in his family to graduate from high school, let alone college. "We didn't take anything for granted."
Along with his mother and sister, White spent his early childhood in rundown houses without indoor toilets, hot water or heating. They moved to public housing and lived his final five years of secondary school in the L.P. Stough Apartments in south Phenix City.
"It was like moving to a condo," White said. "We felt very fortunate to be in the projects."
When he was 6 or 7, White stole $5 from his grandmother's purse -- not for himself; he used the money to buy balloons and candy for the neighborhood, "because I was trying to be a big man for the other kids."
That child's reasoning was indicative of the man White became, said James Patrick, who coached the 1966 state championship South Girard basketball team.
"It surprises me he stole the money," Patrick said, "but he definitely was interested in serving others. He wanted friends, and he must have felt that was one way to be friendly, by sharing."
White said with a chuckle, "The grocer told my grandmother, and my mother gave me the worst whipping I ever had. I'm almost allergic to candy now."
And allergic to trouble.
"It was easy to stay on a positive path because people in the community and in the schools were very supportive and encouraging," White said. "In my neighborhood, it was not popular to get into trouble or to get high on drugs or to do dumb things.
"I knew the drug dealers, but alcohol was a bigger problem than any other drug. I lived around people whose lives were compromised by alcohol, so I knew that I wanted no parts of that. I also had a strong connection to my church, and I was heavily involved in church activities. I played sports since an early age, and I was always looking for positive things to do. I did not hang out with guys who were into crazy things. Most of the time, I had a ball in my hand."
He sure shared that ball well.
"He's an individual that really, really was a team player and cared for others," said South Girard football and baseball teammate James Lowe, now the president of Bishop State Community College in Mobile, Ala. "He was unselfish. He worked hard."
The 1966 South Girard basketball team finished 49-4, and the top seven players earned college scholarships: Point guard Amos Herren joined White at Alabama A&M; English (Rhode Island) and David Whittaker (Albany State) were the forwards; Otis Ray (Lincoln) was the center; and Arthur Reaves (Tuskegee, Fort Valley State) and Sammy Sims (Villanova) were reserves.
Patrick went on to a distinguished career in education, including as superintendent of Macon County (Ala.) Schools. The competitor in White likes to note that he became a superintendent before his coach.
"He was a wonderful guy and a mentor and a great example for us to follow," White said.
" Even though we came up in poverty, we had a lot of support and structure and encouragement and motivation."
White will be the third member of that South Girard team inducted into the CVHOF, following Patrick (2008) and English (2011).
"Eugene was a coach's player," Patrick said. "He did what you asked him to do, and he tried to do it in the way you asked him to do it. He was a quarterback in football, so he had a lot of leadership skills. He wasn't the captain of our team, but he was a quiet leader. He always was in position, and he settled things down when we weren't going in the right direction."
White's preparation, focus and dedication impressed English, who caught his passes also as a wide receiver in football.
"Every time we went into any game, he knew what we needed to do, and you knew every day that you could depend on him," English said. "He was just a joy as a teammate and friend."
White, however, wasn't necessarily a natural athlete. A bowlegged gait made him deceptively fast, Patrick said.
"I didn't expect Eugene to be the player he became," Patrick said.
"He was a big guy, so I saw him as a forward. But then he developed into an excellent ballhandler. So with his size and ability to shoot, he enabled us to play a big lineup."
And he came through in the big games, such as the 1966 state final against Druid High School of Tuscaloosa at Alabama State's arena in Montgomery.
No detailed newspaper accounts are available of that 66-65 South Girard victory; only fading memories recall it wasn't as close as the score.
"There was a little ruckus in the stands for some reason," Patrick said. "The officials stopped the game for while. We were up by five with probably less than a minute to go."
South Girard gained that cushion thanks to White sparking the team at the start, Patrick said. Druid's defense tried to shut down South Girard's front line, and White took advantage.
"I think he hit the first three shots, and we went on from there," Patrick said. "Eugene got us off to a great start and set the tone for us."
After college, White aimed to be a football and basketball coach, not an educational administrator.
"I never dreamed of becoming a superintendent of schools," he said. "I didn't know who the superintendent of schools was in Phenix City. I only saw a picture of him in the yearbook, and he was the only white man in the book."
White coached ninth-grade football and eighth-grade basketball at Kekionga Junior High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., and won the basketball city championship.
"I thought I was hot stuff," he said.
But the human resources director told him he still had to wait in line to move up to the high school level. His leadership abilities, however, might transfer well into school administration, the director suggested -- especially as a minority.
White heeded and succeeded.
In 1976, after only five years as a teacher and coach, he was appointed dean of students at Elmhurst High School in Fort Wayne.
In 1992, White was principal of the 2,900-student North Central High School in Indianapolis -- the state's largest school -- when Redbook magazine named it the best high school in Indiana. The report called White a "visionary leader" and said "White uses a mix of discipline and high standards to maintain quality."
But he wasn't satisfied.
"The higher I progressed in administration, the more I enjoyed the challenges and opportunities," he said. " I wanted to have a stronger influence on student performance and school operations and decided to go into central administration as a deputy superintendent."
About 14 months later, he became superintendent of Metropolitan School District of Washington Township (Ind.) in 1994. And since 2005, he has been superintendent of the state's largest school system, Indianapolis Public Schools.
"I achieved a level of educational leadership that I never knew existed when I was a small boy in Phenix City," he said.
From 'Nugee' to 'Doctor'
For that boy who was called "Nugee" to now be addressed as "Doctor" makes sense to English in retrospect.
"The same things it takes to be successful in athletics are what it takes to be successful in life," English said. "So you knew that was in the cards for him. He was so dialed-in academically. I didn't know he was going to go the superintendent route -- I think he could have been an outstanding coach or AD -- but it's very befitting."
"I think it's precipitated from the fact that he cares about students," Lowe said. "He has modeled that throughout his career. He realized his education was the key to his success, and he's always been of that fabric."
Indeed, in his 19th year as a superintendent, White is far removed from the classroom, but he still wants to make a direct impact on students.
"I try to instill in young people values of scholarship, respect, excellence and courage," he said. "I always talk to kids every year in our secondary schools about what we expect of them, because I don't want them to say they didn't know. A few listen. You try to pay if forward."
White also did that through his family. His wife of 42 years, Jetties, and their children, son Reginald and daughter Kimberly, all work in public school systems.
"We do a lot of lip service when we say it takes a village to raise a child," White said. "Most people encourage their children to be anything but teachers, but teachers are the foundation of our society, the means with which we perpetuate our democracy."
And for White, team sports are another form of education.
"You learn that life is a little bigger than you," he said. " You learn more from losing than winning. That creates character. You're able to come back from setbacks, and, today, we too often make things too easy for our kids. We give them a trophy for just showing up.
"I was fortunate I was taught how to be a responsible person, to be accountable.
"You get out of it what you put into it. Life isn't always fair. You play the hand that life gives you."
White's induction into the CVOF affirms he played his hand superbly.
"Anytime we had a tough situation in a game," Patrick said, "Eugene would always tell me, 'We've got it, coach.'"