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Shepherdstown man keeps history alive

April 23, 2001

Shepherdstown man keeps history alive



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

Tom WhitePhoto: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

From Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to Hawaii, Tom White worked most of his adult life to make it more enjoyable for the rest of us to take time off.

"We work where other people pay to vacation," he said, quoting a colleague in the National Park Service, where White worked as a researcher, historian and interpretive planner for 34 years.

Although he's retired from the Park Service, the man with the love of history continues working as a research associate with the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War.

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He looks back on the many places he worked with pleasure. He worked in Washington in the 1960s on such projects as the reconstruction of Ford's Theater and helping oversee some of the nation's most beloved symbols.

"I was coming down the stairs of the Jefferson Memorial one day and remembered when I was a kid thinking 'if I could just spend one day in Washington, D.C., looking at all the major monuments and memorials, that would be really neat.' And here I was on a daily basis going in and out of these places," White said.

Perhaps he was born to the job, 64 years ago in Bozeman, Mont., just 90 miles north of the world's first national park at Yellowstone. He grew up in nearby Livingston, Mont. He doesn't remember saying it, but his seventh-grade teacher told him he said he was going to be a history teacher.

He spent four summers as a seasonal worker at Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming, an historical hub for many of the overland trails to the west. After earning a bachelor's degree from Montana State University, he taught in Livingston for three years. He also earned a master's degree.

He spent two years in Washington as assistant superintendent of memorials and monuments, then back to Fort Laramie for four years as supervisory historian. He helped restore the site and set up a program of living history.

He once asked students who came on a bus from 23 miles away how long it took them. When they said about half an hour, he told them 23 miles would be a trip of two days for most people making it in a wagon train, most of them on foot.

He then spent 11 years in Phoenix, helping oversee a dozen small parks. Among other activities, he helped develop bilingual interpretation at the parks.

Then it was on to the big island of Hawaii and an unforgettable experience of seeing both the Kilauea volcanic crater and Mauna Loa volcano erupt at the same time for the first time in recorded history.

He recalls a vivid scene from that time.

"I could look one way and see the eruption of Kilauea and turn the other way and watch the eruption on Mauna Loa," he said.

He left Hawaii in 1987 to come to Harpers Ferry, part of a staff that interpreted the events at Park Service sites all over the country. He regrets the time away from his wife, Pat, and three children in those years, but said his children were able to see many things other children did not because of his career.

The oldest son is a minister in Hawaii, another is a restaurant manager and the youngest is to graduate from Shepherd College this spring with a degree in history.

White loved the experience of seeing so much of the country and helping others appreciate it.

"I enjoyed the diversity of experiences," he said. "And I loved the people."

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