Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum President Bill White has never served in the military, but the respect he has earned for raising money for wounded veterans and families of fallen soldiers has made him a candidate for a position in the Defense Department. NY1’s Budd Mishkin filed the following “One On One” report on the military advocate.
Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum President Bill White has a lot to smile about these days. The museum’s star attraction, the USS Intrepid, is newly-renovated and reopened to the public, and White is being considered for a position in Barack Obama’s administration.
But the memory of a day in November 2006 still lingers, the day the Intrepid tried to leave for its renovation, only to get stuck in the muck of the Hudson River.
The story even reached the Vatican, where White gave Pope Benedict XVI an artifact from the Intrepid.
"He looked at me and said, ‘Intrepid, the mud!’ The Holy Father says, ‘The mud!’” says White.
Bill White is always up for a good laugh, especially at his own expense, but he is deadly serious when it comes to honoring men and women in uniform. Through the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, he has helped raise millions for wounded veterans and the families of soldiers killed in action.
A medical center has been built in San Antonio, Texas, and another will be built in Bethesda, Md., dealing specifically with what White calls the "signature wound" of these wars - traumatic brain injury.
"How do all of us look, you've got a young kid exposed to one of these [improvised explosive device] explosions, and his brain's been rattled to the point where he can’t even remember the names of his own children,” says White. “How do we tell that kid, ‘We can’t help you because the economy stinks.’ That stinks."
White's fundraising ability first brought him to work at the Intrepid when he was a volunteer fireman on Long Island and a trained emergency medical technician who created the student-run volunteer ambulance service at Fordham with his friend Dave Winters.
One day when White and Winters started working at the Intrepid, they saw two police officers in the Hudson River, trying to help a woman who had jumped in.
"No one is jumping in the water to help the two cops now. So I said to Dave, ‘What do you think,’ and he said, ‘What are you waiting for?’” remembers White. “So, I don't know why I did this, but I took off my tie and my shoes that I had just bought, nice new shoes, and in my suit jacket I jumped in the water."
The woman and the two officers made it safely to shore.
Even though White never served in the military, he is respected enough by U.S. Armed Forces officials to be considered for a high ranking position in the Department of Defense.
White has been mentioned as a possible Secretary of the Navy, which would make him the first openly gay man to head one of the branches of the military. He has received support from military and political leaders, and in the press.
"When you have the New York Post, which is a fairly conservative paper, come out and say that what I've been doing for 20 years matters more than other things that have been talked about in this adventure, is amazing," says White.
He would like to see a change in the military's “Don't ask, don't tell” policy toward gays, but what won't change is his respect for the men and women in the service.
"It’s a wonderful chance for sailors and Marines to have someone there who loves and cares for them, period, first and foremost,” says White. “And that's what my record is. My record isn't about my sexual orientation or my feelings about this or that. It's about - they are first."
White's commitment to helping others can be traced directly to a letter he sent to John Cardinal O’Connor in the early 1990s, which criticized one of the cardinal's homilies which attacked feminism.
A representative for the cardinal then called, requesting White's presence.
"I started to sweat, ‘God, the cardinal wants to talk to me, I'm dead! Here I go, I'm going down,’” says White.
But O’Connor engaged White in discussion and encouraged him to get more involved in life and not be concerned with making money.
A few days later, White was struck by a picture of a young boy in Life magazine, which showed the ultimate sacrifice made by the country’s soldiers.
"He's got his arms outstretched, he's being held by some family members, and he's getting the flag from his father's coffin,” says White. “Because [the father], Staff Sergeant Jimmy Hawes, had just died for our country in the first Gulf War."
The seeds of Bill White's passion to help others were planted by his parents while he was growing on Long Island.
"My mom and dad are always taking care of somebody who isn’t feeling well or needs a visit or is alone on Christmas or Thanksgiving,” says White. “Sometimes I'll say to them, ‘Come on, can't we just have a dinner by ourselves on Thanksgiving?’ and they'll say, ‘Hey, this person is alone.’”
White’s father ran restaurants, at one point five simultaneously, including the famed New York City eatery, The Giraffe.
"John Lennon used to come into the restaurant and my dad would tell me these stories of him and Yoko [Ono] ordering food, and the drama of all that,” says White. “New York ordering, ‘Leave the mayo out, put the bacon on, no avocado. Okay, I'm allergic to garlic."
White went to Fordham and then culinary school, and worked as a busboy, waiter, chef and manager. But he eventually left his father's business, with a twinge of regret.
"He had worked his whole life to build these restaurants up, and one of the restaurants had a couple hundred thousand customers a year,” says White. “A lot of hard work and success. I feel at some point I may have let him down a little bit.”
But Intrepid has given White the platform to not only raise millions for men and women in the military, but also interact with presidents and heads of state.
When the first former President George Bush arrived on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, White brought to the Intrepid the plane Bush flew in World War II, the Avenger, and two of his fellow servicemen.
"He put his arm around me, and he walked to the back of the plane with the two guys and he was in tears," says White.
The respect White engenders from both Republicans and Democrats helped created his potential for a Defense Department appointment.
"Right now, there are significant challenges, like are we going to move ahead with the Destroyer program, versus how many more Marines do we need?” says White. “These kind of challenging national defense issues are ones that, in this job, we've been very familiar with."
He is not a typical candidate for the Defense Department. He is married to his partner of five years, Brian Eure, and remains a practicing Catholic.
Mishkin: Does the church’s feelings about gay rights present a dilemma to you?
White: No, not at all. I understand where they are coming from. I wish it could be different when I go to church, I have my moment with the Lord and it’s not about issues that I think are more secular.
With White, the discussion almost always returns to the men and women in uniform.
"The idea that one young person who doesn't know my name would be willing to go out and give his life for my freedom is an amazing thing," says White.
But White still loves to laugh at his own expense. One embarrassing moment came on the day of the funeral of the Intrepid Museum's founder, philanthropist Zachary Fisher. White was wearing on his hand a present from Fisher, a Yankees World Series ring originally presented by George Steinbrenner.
White: [Fisher] was a bricklayer, had big huge hands, and I had this ring on and I'm directing traffic like this, and I watch the ring go off my hand, up in the air and into a sewage drain.
Mishkin: The guy gave you his ring, and you chuck it into the sewer, and you’re in charge of this place?
White: And I ran the ship aground! It's a comedy of errors, I think.
A comedy of errors? Not to all the soldiers and sailors and families White has helped.