We look at the legacy of the beloved band director who helped build Elon’s modest music program into an internationally acclaimed cohort of musicians.
By Sarah Collins ’18
On Jan. 19, former Elon band director Jack O. White celebrated his 90th birthday. Now retired, White, or Dr. White as his former students affectionately call him, does not have the same energy he once had. But his passion for music is still there. Although playing has become more strenuous, he’s known to occasionally pick up his trumpet for a duet with his oldest son, Jon White ’72.
“The greatest thing about my dad is that he’s always been a musician’s musician,” Jon says. “Others could feel that in the quality of his performance.”
It’s a testament to a lifetime of service to music education, including 24 years he spent at Elon shaping its music program and the lives of countless pupils. “He made such an impact on all of us,” says Raymond Beck ’75, who played in Elon’s marching band under White’s leadership and served as its drum major in 1973 and 1974. “He highly influenced his students, many of whom later became high school, college and university band directors for several generations and from sea to sea.”
White’s legacy at Elon traces back to 1962, when then Elon president J. Earl Danieley ’49 hired him to join the music department after observing White in action during an event in Raleigh. At the time, White, a West Virginia native, was the band and choral director at Cary High School. It didn’t take long for White’s presence to be felt at Elon. “Dad started with nothing. He had an end table as a desk,” Reggie White ’77 recalls. “Growing up, I was amazed at how hard he worked. He was gone in the morning when I left for school, and when I came home from football practice he was still working.”
White devoted significant resources into developing Elon’s marching band, “The Showband of the Carolinas,” which under his baton became known for its creative and entertaining football halftime shows. “He was one of the most creative people I think we ever knew when it came to music,” Beck says, adding he still remembers some of the moves and maneuvers he learned during his time with the band and the physical preparation it demanded. “We performed a different halftime show every week throughout football season. Those 8- to 11-minute halftime shows were exhausting and then we’d start afresh every Monday afternoon. … When that band was in good form, nothing could stop it.”
Besides the band, White also organized the Emanons, Elon’s jazz ensemble, just one year after he arrived on campus. The group quickly gained international recognition as they played the 1964 New York World Fair, and later, the 1972 Grand Ball for the Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg. In all, the group completed 23 tours under White’s direction.
Not surprisingly, after a few short years of being at Elon, the institution became a White family tradition. Seven of Jon and Reggie’s first cousins also attended Elon, and White taught both of his sons and all of his nieces and nephews in his role as a professor of fine arts and humanities.
Reggie, an Elon football player, emphasized his father’s desire for athletes to put equal effort into academic and athletic pursuits. “Dad paid close attention to all of the athletes at Elon,” Reggie says. “He wanted to make sure they understood it was important for them to succeed in class. He pressed the issue of accountability and attention to detail.”
As a musician, Jon got to see a different side of his father, but still praised his abilities to influence his students. “As a professor, dad had the ability to draw more from you than you thought you could give,” he says.
Beck agrees. “He was a great showman,” he says. “He had, and still has, such a strong presence and personality. He was just a dynamo.”
Jon credits his father for instilling in him a lifelong passion for music. “My father threw a horn in my hand in the seventh grade,” Jon recalls. “He just told me, ‘I need help, you’re in the band!’” Jon never stopped performing, and he went on to play the lead trumpet in Elon’s band for four years under his father’s guidance.
These days Jack resides in a Veterans Administration facility in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., less than an hour away from his younger son, Reggie. While life has slowed down for him, if there’s one thing he cherishes it’s reminiscing about his time with Elon students. “If you mention one student, whether he was a musician or a football player, dad will remember him and he will be able to talk about him,” Reggie says.
“The recollection of students is the thing that makes him brighten up,” Jon adds.
Alumni and friends are encouraged to mail notes or belated birthday wishes for Jack to:
Reggie White ℅ Jack White
733 Lake Geneva Drive
St. Augustine, FL 32092