At age 107, retired doctor brings tidings of joy

Written by Muleskinner Staff

By ERIC ADLER, Kansas City Star
(KANSAS CITY, Mo., AP) — To be frank, although he’s not ill or feeling particularly poorly, Charles White is hardly guaranteeing that he’ll be around for Christmas a year from now.

It’s not like he wants to go, but in August the retired physician turned 107 — older than he ever imagined he’d be.
So .
“I don’t think so,” he said recently, smiling wryly in his Mission Hills, Kan., home, his wits sharp, voice a bit quavering. “You know, numerically, how do you expect it? I just think — the numbers, you know.”
What he can do as he approaches his 108th Christmas is to offer a couple of small gifts in the way of advice from a man who — like the many people today who are facing hard times — has seen his share of troubles and triumphs through a lifetime that began when airplanes were new, rocket ships were dreams and there were still more horses and carts on the roads than motor cars.
His advice:
“Just live life to its fullest and live it honestly,” he offered. “Always do the right thing. You learn from the time you’re a small child what’s right and what’s wrong.”
When times get rough, as they are now and will be again, remember: This, too, will pass.
“I learned that from my mother.”
He learned it from life, too, he said, knowing that the way his own unfurled is not something he ever planned or could have conjured.
He was born in 1905, the son of a Disciples of Christ minister, a man he remembers blowing a horn on Christmas Eve nights as a signal that boys and girls should be in bed because Santa was on his way.
He was only 8 when his father was killed in an elevator accident, leaving the family to fend for itself.
They knew want. They knew economic hardship, living through the deep rationing necessitated by World War I, witnessing the mourning of deaths in the pandemic flu of 1918.
At Westport High School in Kansas City, Mo., his boyhood pal and partner in adventure was Edgar Snow, who later gained international fame as a journalist for his work on communist China, including the book “Red Star Over China.”
To White, he was “Ed.” He remembered one Ed Snow adventure in 1922, a trip they took with another friend after graduating from high school.
“The three of us drove to California in an old 1917 Ford,” White said. “The car was a wreck. The third boy, his parents were real strict people, and they literally went out to California and brought him home and left Edgar Snow and I penniless and wondering how to get back home.”
How did they?
“Bumming trains, all the way,” White remembers.
White concedes that he never really had a solid plan for his life. Whatever plan you make, the universe often has others.
“I didn’t set any goals,” he said. “I just wanted to make a living, and when I wasn’t working, to travel.”
While studying at the University of Missouri, White thought of becoming a physician only because his sister dated one. When he wasn’t in medical school, he taught himself saxophone, listened to Charlie Parker play live and paid his $650-a-year medical school tuition, room and board by playing in his own jazz band. On a summer cruise ship his band toured the Orient.
As a family physician in the Great Depression, he again saw great suffering. “You traded. You bartered. Like I’d deliver a baby and be paid in groceries,” he said.
At the outbreak of World War II, White was already in his middle 30s when he sought to enlist and go overseas. Instead, the U.S. Army Air Corps said he could be more useful stateside and, in time, trained him at the Mayo Clinic as an anesthesiologist.
After four years, he left the corps as a lieutenant colonel, but not before traveling to Peru with Harry Truman’s physician to help in an operation on the hand of then-President Manuel Odria.
Over the years, White has honed a simple philosophy.
“Our whole life is really a summation of happiness with the occasional breaks, like a death or sickness,” he said. “Your whole life structure is essentially positive. The negatives just go along with it.”
He has had his own. His first marriage lasted 17 years and ended tragically when his wife took her own life after suffering what is now recognized as bipolar disorder, and for which there were essentially no treatments.
His second marriage lasted 10 months.
“We just disagreed,” White said.
He was in his mid-50s when he married a third time, to a widow with three children of her own. His marriage to Madelyn Lois White lasted 38 years, until her death 17 years ago. Together they had two more children and raised the five in the Mission Hills home where White continues to live today. His youngest child, Madelyn White Dalgleish, 52, lives directly across the street.
She said that when she was young, she was constantly explaining her father’s age to classmates.
“All the time,” Dalgleish said. “At all the back-to-school days kids would ask, ‘Where’s your dad? Why did your grandpa come?’ I’d say, ‘That is my dad.’ He retired when I was in junior high. But I didn’t think about it. He never acted old.”
At age 91, her father still felt strong enough to take the first of two trips to Haiti on a medical mission.
Now, although he has difficulty walking and seeing and his hearing is going, he also has a companion whom he has known for decades. She is the widowed wife of a late friend and medical colleague who also is the mother of Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper from Kansas City.
“He really enjoys her company,” Dalgleish said. “When they get together, it’s like looking at two high school kids.”
Dalgleish credits genetics for her dad’s longevity. An aunt lived past 100. But she also thinks it goes beyond biology.
“I think a lot of it is attitude. I think he chooses to look at the positive. Any negative, he will look at it and say, ‘This will pass. It will pass. No worry.’ He believes it. I believe it, too.”