Don White looked bigger than he actually was. Measuring about six feet one inch tall and weighing about 220 pounds, he was not that big but his style made him pressingly sturdy and strong. He carried himself with assurance and humility.
Don died at age 70 on January 28 of this year and it is just now that I am able to get “my arms” around the legacy he left, not only to me and his very large family but to those of his generations of Anglos of his age group who are here in the Rio Grande Valley.
A word first about the Valley. There were those who came to the Rio Grande Valley 100 or so years ago who found an agriculture oasis. They called it the “Magic Valley” or for some the “Magical Valley.” But more than 400 years ago it was settled through large land grants from the King of Spain and some of the ranches from those times are still here today. It was settled by Mexicans who came from Veracruz and Monterrey and moved north in at at time when it called was called Nuevo Santander.
Don White had hundreds, if not thousands of friends in the Valley, primarily in Hidalgo County but also Starr and Cameron counties. He married into a prominent family which is led by his lovely bride of more than 25 years, E. Linda Villarreal, M.D., of Edinburg. Don had many layers of complexities not discovered unless you engaged in lengthy conversations with him over a period of time.
It was a pleasure given to me over the past ten or so years as we cruised the highways on our motorcycles, going to Washington, D.C., and riding around Texas on more than ten or so overnight trips. Riding a “Bike” is a private adventure and often results in a close friendship like few others. You get to know your motorcycle friends on a very close basis when you stop for lunch or “bunk” together” in a motel as you travel.
Don and I shared many similarities but you would not know it from looking at us. He was pure cowboy from head to toe and he was equally at ease in the company of any man or woman, no matter the age, or demographic. A consummate gentlemen who would sweep his Stetson from his head and graciously tender a courtly bow right out of the 19th century manner when greeting a lady. The man had style and graciousness that was infectious and his warmth and sincerity was disarming. Bearded, initially foreboding, but upon approach, he was all embracing.
Dr. V, as his wife is affectionately known, comes from a long line of community leaders including her mother, father, and brother Hector, who served the County of Hidalgo as District Judge for a time. There are many others, to say the least. Don’s family was from Dallas and he grew up mostly in the northeast of Texas in Decatur in the western reaches of North Texas over towards Commerce where he attended school for a while. We had that in common.
But when Don came south in the 1970s he found a new “home. At once he was accepted and learned to appreciate the culture of South Texas and Rio Grande Valley and the Border from El Paso to Brownsville. He met his bride-to-be in the late 1970s and loved her with all his heart. They married in 1989. By then he was already acculturated into the customs and values of the Border. Then he became assimilated. What is the difference? The first is the idea that you like and respect the culture and can live side by side with this culture, the second is that you become immersed. We both were immersed in the culture along time ago and we both loved it. And while I speak Spanish incorrectly but fluently, Don learned and embraced the culture to its fullest. It was not only the culture of the Hispanic or Mexican American but also the culture of the Nortenos and Mexican nationals. He went all over the country of Mexico including Mexico City and virtually all of the 20 states in Mexico as a saleman and learned the values of that country as well.
Don was a “horse trader” literally and figuratively in that he would trade and barter and sell heavy equipment into Mexico. He drove trucks, rode horses, and motorcycles and enjoyed a friendly beverage at happy hour. We talked for hours about our family histories and how our backgrounds crossed over each other. Although we did not know so at the time, in the 1960s and 1970s we lived in the same part of Texas. Don was conservative in his views but would remain flexible and would always listen and learn from others.
Don knew of the great future in store for his grandchildren who lived along the Border and he and Dr. Linda made no distinction between family lines… all came together and shared a very tight and close bond. He was that way with his friends and even more so in his faith and religion. We stopped in Mississippi on our Washington, D.C., trip and went to a country Baptist church for Sunday worship. He could sing as loud and in tune as any of the regulars. You see Don just “fitted in” with any group but never lost his individuality.
We would talk for hours about how important the Mexican American experience, the Border experience, is to Texas and the U.S.A. and how few people “up north,” even some of our family and friends, understood the Valley or the Border. They did not have the respect and appreciation of how special a place it is. What wonderful friends we had in Mexico. But, Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans were hardly one and same. It was like peeling an onion, one leaf a time, is the way Don would explain it. Actually, that was the way he was. That analogy embodied Don White.
Don was quick of mind and his conversion to the Catholic Church was real, strongly embraced and felt. So many dimensions. Marked by his persistence of attitude in the positive, never forgetting the little person and equally comfortable with leaders of any stripe. As comfortable at the boardroom table as he was on the dance floor, where he would swoop up his bride and mesmerize us, as he and Dr. V swirled around the dance floor. They were a special couple and each gave the other room to be and go as they wished.
All these reasons, and more, accounted for our steadfast friendship. We both had an abiding interest in healthcare along the Border, and often discussed it during our sojourns on the motorcycle. We would share stories and tell tales with equal time for the other, with mutual gusto, sincerity and laughter.
It is hard in a few words to describe what a gentleman Don was. For his family and friends in North Texas and across the United States, I hope this brief glimpse into his life relates his love of life and the countless contributions he made to the home and area he loved and how he related to his family here in the RGV and how much this man meant to countless people who immediately knew him and appreciated his gentle nature, calming presence and infinite loyalty.
As for the Border, Mexico and most of all to his many friends and family members on both side of the river, we remember him with great affection and passion. In summary, I loved Don for many reasons but most importantly because of the way he related to the very young and the very old. The kindness of his touch and willingness to listen…to convey respect and caring for all. Wow, he lived the life. Every day, I miss my friend. He added so much to my life.