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By MIKE GIBSON
Think of Kingston City Councilman Don White as a sort of salty country-boy version of Frank Sinatra, with strains of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ most famous recording lilting in the background.
“Just like that song “My Way”,” said White, relaxing in the sunroom of his comfortable home off West Race Street. “I’ve done my whole life that way—my way.”
A councilman on and off for the better part of four decades, White has seen it all and done more. He’s lived a life of hard work, hard play, and tireless public service that has included stints in nearly every imaginable phase of local government and civic outreach.
At the heart of it all, he says, “My main goal was always for Kingston to be number one, and be prepared for anything that came at us—good sewer lines, power lines, gas, good growth areas and good subdivisions.”
Strange to relate, but this most devoted of Kingstonians was actually born in Chattanooga, the son of an electrician. But his father had worked in Oak Ridge during World War II, and the family moved to nearby Kingston when White was only three.
“When I first moved here, Kingston was a trailer city,” he recounts. “Trailers everywhere, trailers in yards, trailer courts everywhere. Oak Ridge was booming and all the construction people moved here.”
His life over the next couple of decades consisted of a series of moves between Chattanooga and Kingston — depending on where work was plentiful — and at age 20, he found himself back in Roane County working for Rockwood Electric Utility as a lineman.
“Me and my first wife decided we didn’t like Chattanooga, and wanted to come back where we felt at home,” said White, who married Betty Patterson in 1961. The couple would have two children: son Robby in 1963, and daughter Christi in 1966.
“There’s no place like Kingston. I worked all over the world. But if there was work here, we came back and lived here.”
His career in public service almost began in 1969, but for some strange circumstances that surrounded a voting machine in the old Kingston Courthouse. Running for city council for the first time, White was told he had received large numbers of votes on two machines, and yet none on a third—despite the fact that White himself, and several of his family members, had voted on the machine in question.
“In those old days, all the voting was at the old courthouse,” he remembers. “You walked in and there were three machines. They said I didn’t get one vote on that one machine, even though people told me they voted for me on that machine.
“They wanted me to protest, but I decided not to raise a stink. But I got to thinking about it later. ‘Now wait a minute ...’ Something was wrong with that machine. It was one of those kinds you can fool with. I’ve thought about it many times since then.”
White won easily in the next election. He would only lose one other city council election as he served on and off over the coming years. He has been on council frequently since 1990, serving as vice mayor in 1994.
And his service record has not been confined to Kingston council. At various times, White has been police commissioner, fire commissioner, and served on the citizens water board, the library board, the planning commission, and the Rockwood Utility Board. He’s also a former volunteer fireman. “That was back when we had two police cars and one fire truck,” White chuckles. “It was an old Ford, 95 horsepower.”
In all of that time, he has seen plenty— the good, the bad, and the just plain weird of local politics, and the evolution of an Oak Ridge bedroom community into a city all its own.
“I remember when Mayor Ray Gullett and [councilman] Alb Armour got in a fist fight one night,” he said. “We got it stopped, and had to adjourn the meeting ‘til everyone cooled off. It used to get rough down there.”
On another occasion, things turned ugly when the selfsame Gullet was relieved of duties as Kingston Police Chief by council.
“People threatened to burn my house down,” White remembers. “Then they called and said, ‘we know which way your kids walk to school.’”
White has a couple of de facto trophy rooms in his home, dedicated to plaques, statuettes and other recognitions of his manifold accomplishments, not all of which have come in the realm of public service.
White has two serious after-hours passions: dirt-track racing, and exhibiting so-called show cars, and he has a gaggle of awards for both, including trophies for winning the season championship at the now-defunct Atomic Speedway dirt track for 1993 and 1995 in the Modified class. He placed second in 1991 and 1992.
And then there’s the surprise lifesaving award he received at a 1973 REU Christmas banquet, for pulling a woman out of the river while conducting routine line repairs one day; it’s an award White downplays to this day, despite the fact that he saved the woman’s life on that chill autumn afternoon.
“I didn’t deserve [the award]; anybody would’ve drug her out and done that,” White said almost sheepishly. “I seen her, pulled her out and got her going, did that old Boy Scout maneuver on her. And here come corn, everything that woman eat that day. Come to find out she was my neighbor that lived right over here.”
White has been retired from the utility since 1997 and lives with his wife now of 25 years, Brenda.
“She’s real support of what I do, my council work, my racing, my car shows,” he said.
White seems satisfied with where his life path has taken him, both personally and professionally.
And those goals he set for Kingston? “I feel like our infrastructure is set for anything or anybody that wants to come here now,” he said. “That was always my dream, to get Kingston to that point.”