John W. White, the former owner of Whiteholm Dairy Farm in Auburn, died this week.
Although he was just a week shy of his 94th birthday, friends described him as "vigorous" and "dynamic," a Renaissance man even in recent years. Among his myriad accomplishments: the creation of new iris hybrids and recognition as a nationally ranked, record-breaking swimmer into his 90s.
"He was 93 going on 70," said Peter Young, a friend and president of the Maine Iris Society.
Born in 1916, White was raised on his family's Whiteholm Dairy Farm in Auburn. He graduated from Edward Little High School in 1934 and from Bates College in 1939 with a degree in economics. While at Bates he met and fell in love with Evelyn Jones. The two married in 1941.
Over the next 35 years, White managed the family dairy farm on Turner Street, now Whiteholm Plaza anchored by a Walmart Superstore. From 1977 to 1992 White maintained a second career as a real estate broker specializing in undeveloped farm and forest land, according to his obituary. He also spent years in public service, serving on the Auburn City Council, the Minot Budget Committee, the Androscoggin Historical Society and a half-dozen other boards and commissions.
After leaving the farm, White pursued other interests. Like many retirees, he and his wife enjoyed traveling. Unlike many retirees, they and their son, Edward, created extensive iris, day lily and hosta gardens at their home in Minot. White began passionately working to create his own hybrid irises, even contacting a geneticist for help.
"He enjoyed the challenge of taking something and making the crosses and then seeing what new could be done, how things could be improved," Young said.
White was successful. He created or improved a number of Japanese and Siberian irises, naming a couple of them after his wife. In 2007, the American Iris Society awarded him the Payne Medal for his creation of the Dirigo Pink Milestone.
White also used his retirement to return to swimming, a sport he loved in high school and college. His second career as a real estate broker was not as physically demanding as his time on the farm and it was affecting his health. In 1986 he started swimming in the Bates pool, focusing on the backstroke, the same stroke he'd specialized in during college. Soon, the Bates swimming coach encouraged White to compete, and he agreed. In his 70s, 80s and 90s he consistently broke speed records and ranked among the best Masters swimmers in the world, some of them former Olympians.
“I got lucky. I outlived the competition,” White joked in a 2007 Sun Journal story about his most recent swimming achievements. He was 91.
Age was rarely a problem for White in the pool. When he began having back problems in recent years, he simply learned a new way to do the backstroke.
"That's who John was," said friend Sharon Hayes Whitney. "He could go the distance; he could learn something new at over 90."
In 2002, he was inducted into the Auburn-Lewiston Sports Hall of Fame.
White didn't slow down even as his age advanced. He continued swimming until recently and worked until his death on creating the world's first pure yellow Japanese iris. He didn't get the chance to finish the iris, and he asked Whitney to carry on his work.
"I felt touched. I felt like I was asked to do something really important," said Whitney, who sold White's one-of-a-kind flowers through her Eartheart Gardens in Harpswell. "I felt really blessed that I could do that for him."
White died Monday at the Hospice House in Auburn, according to his obituary. He is survived by his five children, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Friends called him a doting family man and a generous soul.
"He didn't leave debris in his path. He left friends," Whitney said.
Visitation will be held at The Fortin Group in Auburn from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday. A celebration of White's life will be held at 3 p.m. Friday at the High Street Congregational Church on Pleasant Street in Auburn.