Tom Royce White
Eulogy for a Gentleman
Work together on a mountain for 20 years—as Tom White and I did—and you’ll pretty much do anything for each other.
This is not how I expected that promise to play out, Tom, but a promise is a promise.
I’ve never been a fireman, or worked on an ambulance, but I imagine ski patrol life is similar to life in the firehouse. The quarters are close. We pretty much eat all day long. There is always plenty of physical work to go around, and there is time. We spend a lot of time together—hours on end, really. Life in the shack—and in the firehouse, I suspect—comprises long stretches of time punctuated by some intense moments.
Being marooned with a bunch of people like that for years on end is like being part of one big, strange marriage. And like any marriage, one can fall into the little traps of the arrangement: taking each other for granted, getting annoyed by each other’s jokes you’ve heard a hundred times, odd tics and habits that over long stretches of time seem to morph into enormous character flaws.
But Tom never fell into those traps. After being up all night at the firehouse, he showed up to work at the mountain upbeat, professional, always pleasant. Tom was a gentleman, in every sense of that word. He was the steady hand in the room who most days had a wry smile on his face.
I loved Tom’s humor; it was quiet and quick, never mean-spirited. He was so self-effacing that if you weren’t paying attention, you could miss the jabs and witticisms. Things rarely went by Tom, and he pulled his humor from his vest at just the right times.
It is a critical talent to be able to laugh and make others laugh in a line of work that is anything but funny. Humor keeps you in a sort of universal balance when you live your life on call, waiting for something bad to happen to someone else. Like crazy Labradors bred to retrieve, we, as first responders, are wired to seek out the sick and the injured. It sounds awful and weird, but the truth is we all want to be where the trouble is the thickest.
Sometimes we get more than we bargain for. I know I have. More than once I have been on wrecks when I could feel events overtaking me. And then Tom would show up on scene, and I knew we would be okay. He was always calm. He knew what to do, and he did it. He was the guy who could see the problem clearly, simplify the problem, then solve it. Tom was a hero with no ego.
Sam, Will, and Lisa, know this if nothing else: what your father did for a living was honorable—about as honorable as it gets in life. With ski patrolling, firefighting, EMS work—there’s not a lot of money, there’s less fame, and it’s stressful. You can’t make mistakes with other people’s lives. Tom White spent all of his days and nights, used all of his wits and his wisdom to help those who were in need. I can’t imagine anything more noble.
When people leave us, however they leave us, the why of it always haunts us. It can consume us if we are not careful. And this is especially true for a lot of people in this room because it is our job to fix things. We find people at some of their worst moments in life and try to make it just a little bit better. And we almost always do. In those rare but devastating times when we don’t make it better, we are left wondering: What did I miss? What could I have done or said differently? Why didn’t I think of this or that? There are a thousand whys.
Tom and I often talked about kids, so I think he would appreciate this:
I have a 3-year-old daughter, and the other day we were out stomping in puddles. At one point I got out ahead of her, then looked back. She was just standing there. I asked her what she was doing. “I had to stop to think, Dad.”
It struck me then that there is a remarkable moment in life when an inner world suddenly appears before us. At that point, we don’t just live in the world; we can think about the world. We can speculate, fantasize, play out scenarios. We can think anything we want, and it’s all ours. It can be the most liberating thing in the world, but it can be terrifying, too.
For better or worse, we all experience the world uniquely, through the filter of our thoughts—both the world’s splendor and its anguish. So as close as we get to one another—whether it’s our husband or wife, colleague or friend—we don’t always see the world the same way. That makes the sorting out of the why of things very difficult.
And there is something else to consider.
There are hundreds, probably thousands of people out there who got through a time they probably thought they could not get through but for Tom’s help. He was there at the exact right moment, with the exact right skill set and with his compassionate nature. These people he helped were strangers for the most part. People he would never see again.
If you saw five strangers in need every day, would you give them each $10? Would you give them $100? Or maybe an hour of your precious life? What would you give?
Tom freely gave a piece of himself to every patient, every day, every year. That is a profound gift. It’s possible Tom just ran out of himself to give—I don’t know.
I was trained as a scientist, and it was drilled into me that every problem has a solution. While I still think that’s true, I’ve also come to realize that not all things in this life are knowable.
Last, I would like to share a brief story from a long time ago because I think it pertains to our situation here.
As it happens, 26 years ago today, another Sun Valley ski patrolman, Jim Otteson, died. He was caught in an avalanche north of town. I was a young ski patrolman working that day, and through a quirk of circumstance ended up at the scene near Baker Creek. Several of us tried to revive Otto at the scene. We tried all the way back to town, then in the ER.
After the doctor pronounced Otto dead, I walked out to the loading dock of the old Moritz hospital. There I sat on the cold concrete and felt the full weight of the loss come down on me. The guilt, the sense of failure was about as much as I could take; Otto was literally in my hands. And then this friend, the ski patrol director at the time, sat down on the loading dock next to me. We didn’t talk. Minutes went by in silence. Then, he simply rested his hand on my shoulder and kept it there. With that one gesture, I felt the guilt and confusion and anger of that day just wash away.
This is what a lot of people in this room do—we take care of people. But it doesn’t always take the form we expect it to. I couldn’t bring Otto back. And we can’t bring Tom back. But we can, with a hand on a shoulder, maybe a smile at the right moment, help each other take a step forward into a brighter moment.
I know with all the certainty in the world that Tom White would do that for me.
Tom Royce White: (6/7/1971-1/29/2022)