Obituaries

Conrad White, 80; worked at WGBH-TV, Harvard

In the audience for a WGBH show, Mr. White inquired about volunteer opportunities and ended up with a new career.

In the audience for a WGBH show, Mr. White inquired about volunteer opportunities and ended up with a new career.

As the first African-American student admitted to the Cambridge School of Weston, Virginia native Conrad White lived in two worlds.

A popular student at the private boarding school, he started the first campus radio station and was elected president of the class of 1954. “He was sort of the center of our class,” said his classmate and longtime friend Joan Walther.

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Back home in Hampton, Va., however, Mr. White lived under Jim Crow laws and segregated public schools. When friends from boarding school gave him a ride home for winter break, they had to plot their trip carefully as an integrated group riding through the South.

“Once they got past a certain area, they couldn’t stop,” Walther recalled. The students made sure they had plenty of gas and plenty of food in their big old car, a former hearse nicknamed “Mehitable,” a Hebrew variant word for “God rejoices.”

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Mr. White, who often credited his experience at the Cambridge School as the foundation for his confidence and multimedia skills, worked at WGBH on popular public TV shows including Julia Child’s “The French Chef” and spent 27 years at Harvard University, where he retired from the Media Production Center.

A former longtime Cambridge resident, Mr. White died Nov. 9 in Miriam Hospital in Providence following a heart attack. He was 80 and lived in Providence.

“If there was not a ready-made solution, Conrad liked to build solutions. He sought unique answers to problems,” said Robert G. Doyle, Harvard’s associate dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

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“He was talented in so many ways — with airplanes, boats, photography, electronics, carpentry, and sailing,” Doyle added. “If he did not know how to do something, he would conduct research and meet the challenge.”

Born Conrad Jason White, his love of tinkering began when he was a child walking the beach and scavenging military equipment discarded from Langley Air Force Base and Newport News Shipbuilding near his home, he told a Harvard publication.

His mother, Lena, worked for the founder of the Hampton Institute, which evolved from efforts to educate former slaves in the 1870s and later became Hampton University. Through the institute, she learned about the Cambridge School and enrolled her son, according to the school.

“She was a strong single parent and she said, ‘Take all the opportunities you can get, get as good an education as you can, and get off your backside and just do it,’ ” Mr. White told the Harvard Community Resource in 1997. Friends said Mr. White never knew his father.

During high school, Mr. White played baseball, football, and basketball and participated in skiing and archery. After high school, he studied airplane engines at what is now Wentworth Institute of Technology and joined the Air Force Reserves, working as a flight mechanic on troop carriers.

Returning to Cambridge, he worked as a salesman and production manager at places including the Audio Lab in Harvard Square and was immersed in the Cambridge folk scene. He played sax, drums, piano, and flute.

Mr. White was in the studio audience for a WGBH show called “Folk Music USA” when he inquired about volunteer opportunities at the station and wound up with a new career. “I walked up to someone I knew who worked there, explained my background in television, and asked if they took volunteers,” he told Harvard Community Resource. “It was one of those ‘and the rest is history’ kind of jobs.”

He worked for WGBH for 15 years, holding various positions in production for shows including “Crockett’s Victory Garden,” “Say Brother,” and “The 10 O’Clock News.”

After “The French Chef” ended, Mr. White gave a piece of Julia Child’s cutting board to his longtime friend Lou Greenstein, a culinary consultant and chef who appeared on the Boston television show “Good Day” for many years.

Mr. White and Greenstein first became acquainted as young men on the docks at Community Boating in Boston, where Mr. White was a longtime member.

“He was wonderful with people. He was a gentleman, as everybody should be a gentleman,” Greenstein said. He recalled that Mr. White was a favorite guest at the Greenstein family’s Thanksgiving table for several decades. Mr. White always brought deviled eggs to the party.

Sailing was one of Mr. White’s passions. He enjoyed skippering and sailing on what are known as Shields class boats in Newport, R.I., which he initially visited for the folk and jazz festivals.

Mr. White never married and left no survivors, friends said. The Cambridge School of Weston plans to pay tribute to Mr. White at a date to be announced.

In 1982, he started work at Harvard as a media technician in the Modern Language Center and later supervised the technical staff. In 1998, he assumed leadership of the Media Production Center and became manager of legacy technology in 2005, working on converting Harvard materials into newer formats.

“I’ve always been a tinkerer,” Mr. White, who retired in 2009, told Harvard Community Resource a dozen years earlier, adding that he hadn’t planned “to stay at this job so long, but it’s hard to let go because there’s so much to learn.”

“His work helped us to advance a backlog of Harvard history that was becoming inaccessible,” Doyle said.

As a witness to so much change in technology during his life, Mr. White was an expert on the evolution of AM/FM radio, color television, and stereos.

“I thank my lucky stars that I was born early enough to know where, when, why, by whom, and how a lot of this stuff got started,” he said in the Harvard Community Resource interview, adding that he still had unrealized dreams of sailing to Europe, buying and flying an airplane, and traveling on the Orient Express.

“I wish I had 90 more years to do all the things I still want to do,” he said in the 1997 interview.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@me.com.
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