Frank White, pioneer, raconteur and author of bestselling books, died Oct. 18 at his home in Garden Bay. White claimed to be British Columbia’s oldest active author when he published his memoir, That Went by Fast, at the age of 100 in 2014. A workingman and small businessman who didn’t retire until age 80 and wrote about his long life in a colloquial, unvarnished style, White’s trademark was his self-deprecating humour.
“I’d got used to thinking my life hadn’t amounted to much,” he wrote, “and it seemed most people agreed with me on that. Now it’s, ‘Oh, you rode in a horse and buggy? You worked on a steam donkey show? Your girlfriend was a flapper? … You should write a book!’ By hanging around so long, it seems I have become an object of historical interest.”
His was a typical life for a British Columbian of his time, comprised mostly of endless hard work, although on the evidence of his stories, it was seldom dull. He grew up in Abbotsford the son of the town butcher and at age eight began serving customers in his father’s shop by standing on a butter box so he could see over the counter. His father bought the first Model-T delivery truck in Abbotsford but couldn’t get the hang of the horseless carriage, so young Frankie taught himself to operate it, lying about his age to get his driver’s licence at age 13.
“By the age of 13, I already had two professions: butcher and truck driver,” he wrote.
He built on his early start to follow the trucking boom that hit BC in the 1930s and 1940s, pioneering highway freighting then truck logging. In the 1950s he became a small-scale “gyppo” logger before moving to the coastal fishing village of Pender Harbour, where he operated an excavating business, a gas station and a municipal water system. Along the way he endured shipwrecks, topped 200-foot spartrees, fought forest fires, got physical with log rustlers, built houses, built boats, raised a family, dabbled in politics, built early computers, buried a beloved wife and daughter, travelled the world and wrote books. At age 92 he married the former New Yorker writer Edith Iglauer, 89, and they continued to live in their small waterfront cottage in Pender Harbour until the present. He died peacefully with his family and caregivers around him and his sense of humour intact. In his final hours when a nurse asked him how he was, he whispered between gasps, “Hundred per cent!”
White was bemused by his longevity and the celebrity that came with it. “When I was 50 and still had most of my marbles,” he wrote, “all people wanted me to tell them was why their car stalled at the intersection. Now that everything is starting to get hazy, they’re not satisfied unless I can tell them the meaning of life.”
On that score he wasn’t venturing any great pronouncements. “Life is life. It’s not under our control and it doesn’t follow any script. It just is.” He might have added, life goes a lot easier if you have a good sense of humour.
Franklin Wetmore White was born May 9, 1914 in Sumas, Washington. He leaves his wife Edith Iglauer, a daughter Marilyn, two sons, Howard and Donald, six grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.