John White lived a quintessential farm life, getting by on ingenuity and handshakes. He labored to make his family’s land work for his and his children’s generations, and to ensure that it would continue to do so for generations to come.
John C. White Jr.—a descendant of a family that has farmed the same Sagaponack land for more than three centuries—died May 21, at age 92. A memorial service will be held this Saturday, June 1, at 11 a.m. at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, where he was a trustee.
Visitation will be held at Brockett Funeral Home in Southampton on Thursday, May 30, from 7 to 9 p.m., with a Firematic Service by the Bridgehampton Fire Department to follow at 7:30 p.m.
Mr. White, whose nickname was “Red,” was a farmer, World War II veteran, commercial fisherman, pilot and plane salesman, mechanic, firefighter, landscaper, landlord, and EMT. He died, with his family around him, in the home he built himself, on land his family has owned since 1695. He was the 11th generation on the land.
It was on that land that he grew cucumbers, corn, potatoes and cauliflower, raised his family, innovated farm equipment and tackled a wide variety of other businesses and jobs to scrape together a living that allowed him to drive the Mercedes Benz cars and fly the Cessnas that were among his original passions.
It was that land that sat at the heart of what will be his most lasting legacy—and one of his life’s most painful episodes.
Mr. White saw his family as
the stewards of the White acreage, his daughter, Barbara says, not so much as the owners. To that end, he sold off the development rights or donated outright more than 100 acres of family-owned property in Sagaponack—some of the most valuable dirt in the country—to preservation groups to ensure that it would always grow more plants than houses and would be easier to keep as working farmland.
“Our blood, sweat and tears shouldn’t be rewarded by selling our land—that was how he saw it,” his youngest son, Tom, said. “It’s not our place.”
But it was their home. Mr. White was born December 18, 1921, the only son of a hardworking farmer, John C. White Sr., with more than 400 acres in row crops and 30 farmhands, and his equally hardworking wife, Aulis. He has two half-brothers, Robert and Frank Tillotson, who moved to Sagaponack when their mother married John White Sr. in 1947.
He attended the Sagaponack School until eighth grade and graduated from the Bridgehampton School.
Farming would be his ultimate destiny, but it was not his initial passion. That energy went to cars and airplanes and the motors that propelled them. In high school and after, he worked at car repair shops in Southampton. Still in high school, he hitchhiked to Connecticut, then bought a Piper Cub airplane and flew back home, using a road map for navigation. After graduation, in 1939, he enrolled in flight school at Mitchell Field in Uniondale.
When World War II broke out, he tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps but was turned away because he was color blind. In 1943, he joined the civilian Air Transport Command as a flight engineer when it was annexed by the Army for military supply routes and airborne troop transport.
In 1946, John Sr. died. His only son was called back from his military service to mind the family farm. John Jr. had not previously seen running the farm as his calling, but he accepted it as his destiny and dove in with an engineer’s eye for detail, practicality and innovation. Early in his harvesting career, Mr. White showed an attraction to the cutting edge and a penchant for ingenuity and resourcefulness.
“He was always paying attention to what the engineering world was doing and trying to apply it to make farm work a little better or more efficient,” his eldest son, John N. White of Sagaponack, said this week. “He built a pickle picker. Three people lie on their bellies and it carried them along. It picked three rows at a time.”
Mr. White also built his own self-propelled automatic hay baler, which popped out square hay bales faster than anything other farmers in the region had. Mr. White partnered with another farmer, Alvin Topping, and started contracting out their baling services and automatic baler, to bale the grain harvests from other farms after their own crops had been tended to.
In 1960, he traveled to Minnesota and North Dakota to see how large-scale potato growers operated. When he returned, he took two of the two-row potato pickers common in the region and bolted them together to create a four-row picker.
Mr. White was sensitive to the harm modern farming practices could mean for the surrounding environment and the humans that live among the farms. He resisted using pesticides even when they became commonplace.
In summer, when crops needed only minimal investment of time to keep them growing, Mr. White ran a lawn-mowing and landscaping business to keep his farmhands on the clock until the fall harvest. In the fall, when the striped bass, weakfish and bluefish were running along the beaches, he ran a haul-seining crew and sold striped bass to the markets. In winter, he plowed snow.
At various times he ran short-lived side careers as an air-taxi pilot, using his personal seaplane, shuttling weekenders between Manhattan and the Hamptons, and tried his hand at selling Piper Cub airplanes, perhaps thinking his own obsession with airplanes would be more widely felt by others as well.
Mr. White met his future wife, Elizabeth Jean Chambers, at a social gathering shortly after returning to Sagaponack from his military service. She was a nurse, visiting an aunt in Sagaponack to help care for a newborn baby. After a three-month courtship, they were married at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church. They had four children. Mrs. White died in 2011 at the age of 87.
Mr. White served in the Bridgehampton Fire Department for more than 50 years. In 1986, at the age of 65, he became the oldest member to ever be named chief. While he was chief he completed the rigorous EMT medical training program so that he could treat injured people, since he was often the first to arrive at an accident or fire scene. In 1999, the Town of Southampton recognized his 45 years of exemplary service to the volunteer fire service with a special proclamation. He continued as an active member attending meetings until recently.
Mr. White served on numerous boards including Cornell Cooperative Extension and Sagaponack School. He was a member of the choir and was a trustee of Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, and co-chaired the restoration of the sanctuary there in 1964.
Even though his three sons went off on their own, non-farming ventures, Mr. White continued farming his land with a small crew of helping hands until he was 82 years old. The land is now leased to other farmers.
The family began what would become an almost complete preservation of the land from development in the 1960s, with the donation of the Sagg Swamp at the headwaters of Sagg Pond. Over the next four decades, the family donated another dozen acres and sold the development rights on dozens more, for millions of dollars, but for tens of millions of dollars less than it could have reaped on the real estate market.
“He didn’t want to see all that in his backyard,” his middle son, Jeff White, said. “He didn’t want to see [our land] end up like everything else around here.”
The only large section of the family land that Mr. White did sell privately eventually led to the unpleasant legal struggle that marred the last decade of his life. Mr. White made a deal with a longtime tenant of one of the family’s tiny beachfront rental cottages, Anthony Petrello, to purchase the cottage and 9 adjacent acres on which the Texas oil executive planned to build a modern house for his family. But a drawn-out subdivision process and skyrocketing land values led to a dispute over the original agreement and a lawsuit by Mr. Petrello.
A judge ultimately gave Mr. Petrello the land he had agreed to buy for a fraction of its actual market value, and Mr. White’s claims that Mr. Petrello had rigged the contracts to work in his favor soured the relationship between the two families, leading to a second round of lawsuits, still pending, in which the Petrellos lay claim to nearly all of the family’s remaining land. Mr. White’s children are now trying to settle the suit and save the land.
They acknowledged that their dad may have been naive about the due diligence needed on such contracts in the modern legal age.
“To my father a handshake was a deal,” Jeff White said. “His word was good.”
Mr. White was predeceased by his wife of 63 years, Elizabeth Jean Chambers White, and is survived by four children, John N. White, Barbara White Ford, Jeffery White and Thomas White, and one grandchild, Eliza Topham-White.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Organ Fund of the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, P.O. Box 3038, Bridgehampton, NY 11932-3038, or to East End Hospice, P.O. Box 1048, Westhampton Beach, NY 11978.