DEPOE BAY — An acclaimed former mayor who defied racial barriers in police work and politics has died at the age of 76.
Jim White passed Sunday, March 21, just two days after entering a hospice when his heart condition worsened, according to his daughter, Marsha White. His wife, Debbie, said the tall, jocular Brooklyn, N.Y., native had suffered from congestive heart failure for several years.
White was beloved by many Depoe Bay residents who elected him time and again for bringing stability and direction to a city government that had been sharply divided over policies and grudges that sometimes erupted in rowdy meetings at City Hall. Meanwhile, he stood out as the rare black political figure in Beaver State politics, becoming only the second African American to lead an Oregon city and the first black mayor to head the prestigious Oregon Mayor’s Association.
“If you think about it, I made history,” reflected White in an exclusive interview with Homepage in July, 2020 where he talked frankly about racial prejudice.
White also opened the door for others as the first black officer at the Corvallis Police Department and the first at Lincoln City P.D. White retired from the LCPD in 1998 after a distinguished 20-year career in law enforcement.
He was quietly proud of his honorable military service. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17 in 1960 and served in Vietnam during the blistering opening battles of 1965-66. He transferred to the U.S. Army in 1971 with duty in Korea, retiring in 1980.
Builder Rick Davilla, a U.S. Army veteran, met White while addressing the city council one Tuesday evening. Both served in ‘Nam, but years apart. “I missed you,” White remarked.
“I missed you, too,” chuckled Davilla of the inside joke. “He was cool. He kept a lid on things, and kept people in line which made him controversial. I liked Jim.”
White burst onto Depoe Bay’s tumultuous political scene in 2003 after hearing about the offensive public remarks of a city councilor “…saying all we needed was ‘a basketball court and a crack dealer to look like a concrete jungle.’” He challenged her remarks and was subsequently appointed a vacant seat.
White’s electoral popularity could be measured on a Richter Scale. In Nov., 2004, he defeated incumbent mayor Bruce Silver 442-272, then ran unopposed in 2006. In 2008, he won a third and final term, defeating his opponent, Monty Demaris, 524-182. Just one other mayor, the late Bob Jackson, was reelected to a third term.
Former businessman Zeke Olsen, elected on a write-in vote, served for a couple of years on White’s council.
“Overarchingly he was a patriot,” Olsen asserted. “Looking back fondly, we didn’t always see eye-to-eye. He was a complicated man who felt he was doing what he thought was best for the public, then served to the best of his abilities.”
Dan “Booner” Zimmerman, a veteran skipper, remembered how White admitted to voting against him in a hotly-contested election but soon regarded him as an ally on city council.
“He didn’t think I would ‘fit in’ on the council, but I changed his mind rather quickly,” he said. “The other people on the council were stuffed shirts, and I’ve been ‘Booner’ all my life. He was glad I stuck with it and saw it through. He was a fine mayor who ran a good meeting. He didn’t ramble or beat around the bush. He got business done and boom, adjourned the meeting. I liked that.”
A simple campaign pledge carried White through three terms in office, the maximum allowed by the city charter.
“I believe City Government has three basic tasks,” wrote White in the voter’s pamphlet. “Keep its citizens safe, keep its area healthy and make the city prosperous. It is important for all factions of City Government and its citizens to work together as a team in the best interest of the city.”
White is survived by his wife Debbie and six children. She recalled how her husband would be recognized everywhere, including distant airports in Miami and Houston as the couple traveled to visit family in retirement.
“We were at a layover in North Carolina when somebody yelled across the terminal, “Jimmy!’” Debbie recalled. “You couldn’t go anywhere without somebody knowing him.”
A celebration of life, date to be announced, will be followed by burial at Willamette National Cemetery with full military honors.
“He was my rock,” said daughter Marsha of ‘Papa Jim,’ his nickname to friends and kids. “He was a generous and good-hearted man who loved his his community, family and grandchildren.”