Earl C. White, 84, lifelong waterman on the bay

August 14, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Earl C. White, a third-generation waterman who spent 60 years tonging and dredging for oysters in brackish Chesapeake Bay waters and later enjoyed recounting his experiences for schoolchildren, died of a heart attack Monday at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury. The longtime resident of Quantico, Wicomico County, was 84.

Mr. White was known from the Delaware Bay throughout Tidewater Maryland and Virginia. Fellow watermen fondly called him the "Black Pearl of the Chesapeake" because of the pearls he occasionally found.

The oldest of 16 children, he was born and raised in Dames Quarter in St. Mary's County and attended county public schools.

Except for his Navy service during World War II, Mr. White's entire life was spent on the Chesapeake, where he began fishing in 1929.

"I was baptized on the bay," he told The Sun in a 1998 article.

"For 60 years, that's all he ever done was work on the water. He came up with the water. It was instilled in him," said Claude White, a brother who lives in Princess Anne.

Mr. White spent his career dressed in rubber waders and rubber gloves oystering from the slippery decks of such vessels as the Clarence and Eva, Maime Mister, Thomas Clyde, Rebecca T. Ruark, Ralph T. Webster, Lottie May and Dottie May.

He survived freezing weather, sudden storms and a shipwreck. He rejoiced in the years when oysters were plentiful and lamented when they were not.

Whenever he thought of doing something else that would take him from his backbreaking labors, he was inextricably drawn back to the bay.

Mr. White retired in 1989, and since 1991 had been first mate of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's skipjack Stanley Norman, which was built in 1902.

"He was a hard-working man who loved the bay all his working days. Even when he was sick, he wanted to go back to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation because he loved talking to the children about his life," said his second wife of 22 years, the former Orsula Mitchell.

When he was working aboard the Stanley Norman, Mr. White could be found resting aboard the vessel that was tied up during the week at City Dock in Annapolis.

"Earl was a wonderful representative of the African-American watermen who worked the bay, and there are not many of them left," said Don Baugh, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's vice president for education.

"His career went back to the days when there were more than a 1,000 skipjacks, bugeyes and schooners working the bay. Today, there are now less than 10. It really is the end of an era," he said.

"He was a wonderful spokesman for the foundation. He spoke in a huge, commanding voice in a very eloquent, simple and quiet way. He had a history and could talk about 1933 or 1954 like it was yesterday. And it was a first-person experience," Mr. Baugh said.

"We enjoyed saying that no one alive caught more oysters than Earl," he said.

Mr. White was also an accomplished blues guitarist, whose renditions of "Cee Cee Rider" or "Railroad Bill" were enjoyed by passers-by walking near the docked Stanley Norman.

"He played one hell of a blues guitar. His first guitar was a cigar box with rubber bands, and an uncle taught him how to strum. He learned the old traditions and songs," Mr. Baugh said. "Beginning in his teen years, he played in the Clay Street nightclubs in Annapolis, which was an African-American neighborhood, or put out the hat."

Honors came to Mr. White. In 1998, Gov. Parris N. Glendening gave him the honorary title of Admiral of the Chesapeake Bay. President Bill Clinton honored him on the 30th anniversary of Earth Day in 2000 as one of five heroes who saved the bay.

Services for Mr. White will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Quantico.

Besides his wife and brother, Mr. White is survived by another brother, Ralph White of Princess Anne; and two sisters, Bertina Jackson of Quantico and Emma Lee of Wilmington, Del.

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