As a newspaper reporter, I depended on Tom White for a variety of things. As someone who learned from him both as a student and an adult, I developed a deep respect for him.
Today, I opened my email to find the local obituaries — it’s become a morbid obsession of mine. And more and more, the people who have shaped me as a man keep popping up in the feed. I guess that’s how life goes, but it doesn’t get any easier. When I saw Tom’s picture, guilt washed over me. about two and a half years ago, I saw him for the last time. And the guilt was because I never sucked it up to visit him in the nursing home.
It was the middle of July, 2013, and I was helping Slim Kimmell, then a photojournalist for the Billings Gazette, with a project ranking the best gymnasiums in Montana. Slim had never been to Memorial Gym, and he wanted a tour in order to see what all the fuss was about. I wanted Tom to be interviewed — to have the foremost authority of the history of basketball in Anaconda speak on behalf of our monumental Snake Pit. But when I made the call, something wasn’t right.
Let me backtrack a bit. When I was beginning a writing career for the Montana Standard and Anaconda Leader, Tom was my go to source for any and all things Anaconda High School. He knew everything, usually off the top of his head. He would always retire to his dungeon of information and return my call, but it always turned out he was spot-on with his recollection of data.
Tom compiled every season of Anaconda High School basketball from the 1900s until the early 2000s. And he didn’t just compile records and totals, he compiled everything. Full rosters of coaches and players, the amount of games they played, the points they scored — home and away — along with win/loss records against common opponents. Want to know how many games John Cheek or Bill Sullivan won or lost against Billings West or Dillon? I can give you that information in seconds.
And what’s more was Tom could regurgitate all of this and more in intimate detail. He was a living and breathing encyclopedia.
So back to the interview. While waiting for Tom, who only lived a block away, the exact date of the opening of Memorial Gymnasium wasn’t quite clear to me. I didn’t even dare to guess because the man who knew everything was on his way. Once he arrived, something wasn’t right. His thoughts were cloudy and he brought a yearbook from 1950 to help refresh his memory. And even that didn’t help.
We discovered it did open in 1949, which was my original guess, but seeing Tom so scattered had me puzzled. He never went on camera because I think even he knew something wasn’t right. Days later, he was admitted into the nursing home two blocks from his house suffering from dementia and signs of Alzheimers.
At first, I was crushed. All that information, knowledge, history and passion was being stolen from him. And from me.
Once I was discharged from the Navy in 1997, I knew I wanted to be a writer. And the only place I wanted to do it was in Anaconda. Bruce Sayler gave me my first, second, third, and twentieth shot at the Standard before I just started showing up so often he knew he couldn’t get rid of me. Of all the feature stories I wrote, any that provided statistical data comparing one individual to another, those numbers came directly from Tom White.
“I needed somebody to talk to for the story when the legendary John Cheek passed away a few years ago,” Sayler posted on a Facebook feed tonight. “Tom White was so much help. I remember him playing on the Estes teams, too. He is a big loss to the Anaconda community in general, the sports community in particular.”
One of my favorite things to do is look through the trophy case at Memorial Gym. I’ve looked at the Wayne Estes memorial thousands of times, and every time I remember the stories Tom would tell me about him. He knew intimate details about those days, because as an undersized athlete, he played alongside the biggest legend in Montana basketball history.
“Quick with great defense! Couldn’t shoot a slingshot!” joked Tom Greenough, a former teammate and friend of Tom’s at Anaconda High. “A six-foot high jumper too! In the days when 6-foot-10 was the world record.”
Below are two screenshots from one of his history books. It’s the season recaps from his junior and senior seasons. Check out the rosters and the reference to the Butte Salute. I cherish this book, and it’s only one of many.
I used Tom more than baby powder during Sunday softball tournaments in July.
When Don Hatcher passed away in 2015, Greenough and I had a conversation. I asked him what year Don graduated to get a baseline on his time at AHS. Class of 1960 it was. By looking over Tom’s black history book, I relayed that Mr. Hatcher was “one of 24 players to score four TDs in a game-did so against Bozeman in 1959. Scored 224 points in hoops in 26 games for an 8.8 ppg average in 1959-60.”
“Yep, that’s Hatch,” Greenough replied. “He was a defensive wizard also.”
Because of Tom’s research, I was able to put a smile on the face of a man who had just lost a friend. That Friday night, Anaconda played in Whitehall during the Trojans Homecoming. I gave a shout out to Don during the radio broadcast after his passing and reiterated those facts.
Because of Tom, players can look back on their time at AHS and relive a little of their former glory. To me, that’s remarkable.
Since he stepped away from recording all of the statical data, I picked up the slack. I also began categorizing girls’ basketball from their start in the 70s. I’m nowhere near as detailed as Tom was, but I can say that the information is up to date and accessible. And I’m extremely proud of being able to piggyback on his data.
In one of our many conversations, I told Tom I wanted his collection of material once he decided it was time to give it up. Shortly after he was admitted into the hospital, his youngest son, Shawn, who is a year older than me, called and told me about what happened to his father. He also offered three file cabinets and several boxes full of old yearbooks, scorebooks, spreadsheets of information, game programs and a book he wrote.
Knowing that Tom trusted me with this was truly humbling. Knowing he had the conversations with his family that he wanted me to have all of his research was touching. A lifetime of work landed in my lap, and I can tell you it was one of the most gratifying gifts I’ve ever received. That afternoon, I pledged to Shawn I would write a book (or numerous with all of this information) and a majority of the proceeds would go to whatever charity the family would like. It’s the least I can do for a man who gave so much to the school and community he loved.
I can say I haven’t had much time to write a book as of late. My children are young and I’m busy enough in my own life to take on such a huge task. But when the time is right, it will be done.
It’s not hard for me to admit my biggest passion is following and supporting Anaconda athletics. But before me, there was a man who did it bigger and better.
And I can’t thank him enough for paving the way. Rest in peace Whitey.