By Nicholas M. White
When I was little, I thought my dad was Superman. This is common enough to be a cliché, but Hollywood could have done worse than casting him. He was tall, broad-shouldered, with a dark Samson mane of hair, quietly confident behind thick glasses, until he swept them off to swim or work in the yard.
But Superman wasn’t really his style – a bit too uptight. A better superhero name for him would have been: Jack of All Trades. He could do seemingly everything, and did. He was a musician, a builder, a truck driver, a businessman, an entomologist, a civil servant – and he would have been more with more time. As a humble hero, he would have hated this superhero framing – one of the reasons I chose it!
But in challenging times we can use all the heroes we can get, so let me tell you more about Jack of All Trades, aka Michael Joseph White, son of Patricia and George, son-in-law of Lorraine, father of Michelle and Nick, father-in-law of Abram and Kimi, grandfather of Camille and Jack; husband, soulmate, and best friend of Cheri.
His origin story begins in New York, where he was born in 1953. He grew up mostly in New Jersey alongside three siblings—an older sister, Georgeanne, and younger siblings Edie and Bobby. His mom is a talented cook, seamstress, and homemaker, and his dad was a manager and businessman.
Michael was a sweet and shy boy who was drawn to music from his youngest days. His mom and sister Georgeanne remember how he loved to dance in his playpen to music on their Victrola. He grew out of his shyness in large part through music, learning to play the baritone, guitar, and piano, but his greatest love was the drums.
In school he drummed in just about every type of band: the marching band, the jazz band, and rock bands with his friends. His sister Edie fondly recalls a jazz concert drum duel between him and another drummer, with each one one-upping the other time and again, cresting with a thunderous standing ovation, and earning him new attention from girls at school.
This lesson was not lost on him. He continued drumming into his twenties, pressing records with his bands Sugar Mountain and South Berry Lane, and meeting his future wife Camille Conte at a gig. Our protective Italian grandfather Carl surely kicked himself for a long time for hiring my long-haired father’s band to play at his restaurant.
Once he was married and began supporting a family, Michael moved on to other trades, though he never really left music behind. When Camille suddenly and tragically passed away, leaving him to grieve and parent two kids on his own at just 35 years old, his musical connections helped him find love again.
At the wedding in Los Angeles of a former bandmate, Andrew Baker, he met Cheri Martini, initiating a transcontinental courtship and, soon enough, marriage. Cheri’s feats crossing the country to join a family with a 7-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl in New York are worthy of their own heroic tale; she was his great partner from the first day, and for 30 years.
My dad repaid these benevolent musical gods by sharing his love of music throughout his life, filling our childhood home every weekend with records played at concert volumes of David Bowie, The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Elvis Costello, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Bruce Springsteen.
But music was just one of his trades — there were so many more.
He was a truck driver who could drive a big rig with a Big Mac in both hands, guiding the giant wheel with his giant knees. He used those long haul skills to drive the family down to Disney World every year, without a single stop, teaching me a lesson I’ve never lost: the goal of driving is to pass as many people as you can. Once we made it to Disney, a place he did not love, he became a videographer, capturing every goofy moment.
He was a builder. He designed and built our deck and indoor pool room, though a leak in the pool itself defeated him for a solid decade. Best of all for two young kids, he built a massive playground-style swing set in our back yard, at least two stories tall, whose rings and bar and swings and slide and fireman’s pole were the setting for many a superhero story of their own.
He was a businessman. He grew up learning the pragmatic side of business alongside his dad and mom, who managed stores, including a liquor store for a time. He spent most of his early adulthood as owner and manager of variety stores in Suffolk County, Long Island, first using the name Shane’s, and then reincorporating as Camille’s Select Variety. In one way or another, they were all family affairs, first partnering with his father, then his brother, and then working alongside Camille, Cheri, and especially Michelle.
Michelle pretty much grew up in the stores, starting in a playpen at Shane’s, and ultimately managing the Wading River Camille’s as a teen after school, trusted to boss around her best friends, with no actual adults in sight.
These general store-style businesses were community staples, where a kid could find any candy he’d ever heard of, a parent could find any household good or gift, and thieves could find out about the magic of the two-way mirror, through which their petty transgressions were easily observed.
He was an entomologist, too, if you can believe it – a studier of insects. Not technically, but when he moved to Carlsbad in 1996, he found an unlikely new passion as a termite inspector. He could tell you every single thing about those greedy little wood-eaters. Finding them was a game he loved to play, climbing through attics, crawling under houses, thrilling to the sight of their discarded wings, a tiny battle won.
He was a civil servant as his last trade, returning to the IRS, where he had worked for a couple of years in Buffalo in the seventies on the strength of an Associate’s Degree in Accounting from Suffolk County Community College. This trade he loved least of all, but in those years he focused on another trade altogether, his greatest untapped skill:
He was a teacher. Almost not at all professionally, aside from some music lessons in his teens. But at heart, he was a teacher, and in his last eleven years of life he found his two greatest pupils, Jack and Camille. He loved them fiercely, deeply, patiently. And his greatest joy was to see the spark of insight in their eyes as they got something, really got it. Whether he was teaching them to make pancakes, to tap out a rhythm on the drums, to fix a screen door, or to find spiders, he took his role as grandpa and teacher seriously, as seriously as any of his other trades, but expressed with even more love.
He wasn’t a bad writer, either, and until the end, he stubbornly insisted he was going to write his own eulogy. I can assure you it would have been much shorter if he had.
But it should have been much longer. He and Cheri had many adventures still ahead of them. They were great travel companions, cruising across the Caribbean and down the coast to Mexico, using a time-share to visit Hawaii, Utah, and San Francisco, and returning to favorite spots across the Southwest, especially Palm Springs and Las Vegas. They dreamed of crisscrossing the country in an RV with their friends Carol and Paul, or sailing a houseboat around big sunny lakes, with Camille and Jack as their shipmates.
He was only 66 years old when he passed in June, with so many lessons left to teach. His last lesson was to go down fighting. He had saved others: his brother from drowning as an infant; me from careening into traffic on my first bike. Why could he not save himself? He was a survivor: a man who had pulled himself from the ocean with a broken neck after a bodysurfing accident. Why could he not be the first known survivor of leiomyosarcoma of the seminal vesicle?
In the end even superheroes like him find their kryptonite. But there is honor in fighting the unwinnable fight. His family is grateful for the many lessons he had time to teach, and gifts he had time to give. They will be his legacy. Whether Jack becomes an artist, or finds another great trade, or Camille becomes a boss, or a boss’s boss, their superhero feats will be inspired in part by him.
And while Cheri and he were denied the retirement they should have had together, his last and greatest gift to his family is that we get to have her in our lives. We will cherish her, Dad, as I know you would have, and always did.
Livestreams on Thursday, July 9, 2020:
Service: 9:45 a.m. PDT
Eulogies: 1 p.m. PDT
Zoom (both Service and Eulogy): https://csun.zoom.us/j/8859476923?pwd=ZGJIVlFwMUJQSlZEN241T2VGeVdSQT09
Meeting ID: 885 947 6923