It was a celebration of his decades of work at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation as both president and chairman of the board. For Bill White, it was an opportunity to say thank you.
William S. White took the stage on Monday for what would be his last public appearance. He died Wednesday, Oct. 9, at age 82, less than 48 hours after being honored for his work during the Council of Michigan Foundations annual meeting this week in Traverse City and addressing hundreds of the state's top philanthropic leaders.
They recognized his 50 years of philanthropy.
They recognized him as the powerhouse behind transformative nationwide change including the very existence of after-school programming.
They recognized the leader respected by global dignitaries, presidents, and nonprofits large and small throughout Flint.
White was wowed. His voice cracked. Repeatedly.
He said thank you to staff that surprised him with a tribute video
(complete with Arnold Schwarzenegger offering him a job) and to so many other people whom he met and worked with over the years. Some living. Some already passed, causing his voice to crack with emotion yet again.
It was clear White had a lot he wanted to say.
He waved his right hand in a flutter in that way that he was prone to do when he went off script, which he also was prone to do. He was self-deprecating (humorously slouching his shoulders and lowering his head to illustrate how small he felt when posing for a photo with Schwarzenegger and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), full of history, and determined to impart a few lessons.
“One of the jobs for this audience is to know your local, state, and federal representatives and tell your stories,” White said. “Tell people what your passion is, why you’re funding it. Tell them what your results are.”
He also paid special tribute to the Council of Michigan Foundation’s work in general and, more specifically, its work on issues of diversity and inclusion.
“Look at yourselves. You represent fundamental diversity in terms of person, types of philanthropy, thinking and values,” White said. “You’re doing it, yes, and in ways far superior to what was done before.”
The speech also included a few of White’s somewhat infamous off-the-cuff remarks (including a reference to AutoWorld and recalling when he told then-Congressman Dave Camp that the excise tax needed to be simplified because it was “a giant hemorrhoid,” which apparently earned White the nickname “Hemorrhoid Man”).
Throughout his 14-minute, 30-second address, however, he did not once mention his own important work in the field.
He didn’t talk about increasing the foundation’s assets 20-fold, successfully transforming the C.S. Mott Foundation into an international powerhouse with offices in South Africa and London, or leading the foundation to top more than $3 billion in gifts by its 90th anniversary in 2016.
Instead, he shared his memories and his knowledge. And, he made people laugh along the way.
In perhaps the most touching moment in what could only be described as a series of touching moments during the celebration on Monday, the crowd stood and welcomed White to the stage with a standing ovation.
His son, Ridgway (who took over as foundation president in 2015), helped him to his feet. White balanced his tall frame over two orthopedic walking canes and began to move toward the stage.
White did not move quickly. Others stood nearby, trying to help. Step by step, White moved deliberately, perhaps even a bit proudly, up the ramp and to the podium.
It took excessively long. And, the entire audience pretended that it did not.
Everyone stayed standing. Everyone continued applauding.
Only after his canes had been taken away and he stood firmly the podium, like the strong leader he was known to be, did the crowd relent and sit.
White was still visibly moved from the video tribute.
“A lot of great memories in there. It was wonderful. Thank you,” he said.
No, Bill. Thank you.