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WHITE, JOHN COYLE
WHITE, JOHN COYLE (1924–1995). John Coyle White, Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, and chairman of Democratic National Committee, son of Edward Hilliard White and Carrie Lou (Campbell) White, the youngest of three children, was born near Newport, Clay County, Texas on November 26, 1924. He was raised on his father's tenant farm in Clay County in the Dust Bowl during the poverty of the Great Depression. A teacher and his older sister, Marie, encouraged him to work hard and excel in school.
He graduated from Iowa Park High School in 1942 and was able to go to college because he won a Sears & Roebuck nationwide contest for a $100 F.A.A. Achievement scholarship for college tuition. He went to Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University), the nearest college to his home, with less than a dollar in his pocket. Since the family did not have a working automobile, White likely walked and hitchhiked to school and even slept in a field during his earliest days in attendance. At Texas Tech he was able to earn money by working as a janitor, dishwasher, and bellhop. Known as “Red White” because of his bright red hair, he was popular with his fellow students and won his first election as head cheerleader. (After graduation he preferred to be called “John C.”) While he was at Texas Tech, he met and married Mary Jean Prince, and he graduated with a B.S. degree in agriculture in 1946. Their first son John Richard White was born the same year. After working as a teacher of veterans vocational agriculture in north central Texas, White managed farms and taught agricultural courses at Midwestern University in Wichita Falls from 1947 to 1950.
John C. White, at age twenty-five, was elected Commissioner of Agriculture in 1950 “in one of the most stunning political upsets in the annals of Texas history.” He defeated a slate of candidates to emerge in the run-off with J. E. McDonald who had held the post for twenty years. At that time, White was the youngest man ever to be elected to Texas statewide office and the youngest person elected Commissioner of Agriculture in the United States. (He was actually twenty-four years old when he was running for the office and twenty-five years by the time he was sworn in). Shortly after his election, the January 1, 1951, issue of Life magazine listed him as one of the fourteen young people in the nation who were “Hope For The Future.” After his election in 1950, the White family moved from Witchita Falls to Austin where they joined the First Baptist Church. John C. and Mary Jean had two more sons—Edward Prince White and Jake Rayburn White.
The Texas Department of Agriculture underwent its first major overhaul under White’s leadership. The agency’s six divisions were made into three—Marketing, Quarantine & Inspections, and Seed—and organized within a central administrative branch. White decentralized the department into six regional offices throughout the state with Austin serving as the main headquarters. Consequently, the reorganization of the agency resulted in an increase in efficiency with no need for an increase in appropriations; it was the only state agency that did not have to request the Texas legislature for greater funding. Without significantly hiring more staff, White improved the agency's services “by an increase in regulatory and inspection work of 44% the first year and 62% the second year.” The department had grown to seven district offices across the state by 1972.
When White first entered Texas politics, candidates for statewide offices had to run every two years. In his next election in 1952 White faced a tough decision. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was heading up the Republican ticket, and most candidates saw that as the winning ticket. Texas Governor Allan Shivers led statewide Democratic officials to cross-file as Republicans to help Eisenhower carry Texas. Based on the advice of U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn and after threatening to sue the Texas secretary of state, White got his name removed from the Republican ballot. He was the only candidate not to cross-file. He was loyal to the Democratic Party and said, “The voters are entitled to have a choice between political parties and candidates, but I believe a state official should respect and honor the party which is supporting him.”
In 1957 White suffered the only major political defeat of his career when he ran for the U.S. Senate in a special election for the seat vacated by Senator Price Daniel. Ralph Yarborough won that election, and White continued as Commissioner of Agriculture. He remained undefeated as Commissioner of Agriculture for twenty-six years that included thirteen elections in total and became a powerful force in Texas politics and the Democratic Party of Texas (although he lost a race to become the statewide chairman in 1972).
Texas was transitioning from a rural-based economy to a predominately urban-based economy during his tenure as commissioner. White changed his department to meet the ever changing needs of Texans. In 1972 he established a Consumer Affairs Office in the department to insure Texas consumers got accurate measures on everything from the scale in the grocery store to the gas pump. In 1975 he started the TDA Quarterly, a glossy magazine on agricultural issues designed for a general audience. White, “adamant in his beliefs that the strength of a nation's economy was the ultimate responsibility of the agricultural producer,” continued to be a strong advocate for Texas farmers and ranchers, especially in Washington during the severe 1950s Texas drought. He also supported the civil rights movement of the 1960s and supported repealing the poll tax in Texas that blocked many minorities from voting, especially poor black people. During the 1960s he integrated the staff of the Department of Agriculture for the first time.
White was a conservationist. He created soil conservation districts in the effort to promote soil and water conservation in the state and initiated the first cooperative effort with Mexico to control insect pests. White pushed for state legislation for the analysis and registration of agricultural chemicals. He also set up laboratories to test chemical contaminants and residues before and during harvest. During White’s tenure, the Texas Department of Agriculture launched the Texas Agricultural Products (TAP) marketing project to promote Texas goods. Ever mindful of helping the farmers and ranchers of Texas, in 1974 he recognized them by creating the Family Land Heritage Program, an annual program honoring Texas farmers and ranchers who have worked their land for 100 years or more.
In 1970 he married Wynelle “Nellie” Watson Coffee after his divorce from Mary Jean White. Wynelle had three children—Russell W. Coffee, Kay Lynn Coffee, and Craig A. Coffee.
White came to know and work with many national figures including presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Through politics and his interactions with the federal government representing Texas agriculture, he was always interested in national politics. In 1960 and 1964 he served as a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions, and he was on the executive committee of the Democratic Charter Commission in 1974 and chairman of the Texas delegation to the 1974 mini-convention. Under President John Kennedy, White led a task force that negotiated the "chicken war" with the European community in 1963. In 1964 he was selected by President Lyndon Johnson to be a representative at the Turkey and Yugoslavia Trade Conference. White functioned as a special adviser in Vietnam to establish a self-sustaining food production program for Southeast Asia in 1967. He was active in many presidential campaigns, and he was the Texas chairman for the 1972 George McGovern campaign for president against Richard Nixon. During that campaign he met campaign workers Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham, and in later years they became trusted colleagues.
White resigned as the Texas Commissioner of Agriculture in 1977 to become Deputy Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture at the request of President Jimmy Carter, and he and Nellie moved to Washington. His first responsibilities included dealing with thousands of angry farmers who called for new farm policies and protested in Washington by driving their tractors around the National Mall. In December 1977, after only a few months at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he was chosen by President Carter to become the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Serving as chairman from 1977 to 1981, he helped the Democrats retain their majority in Congress in the 1978 election. Also he was able to get the Democratic Party on a sound financial basis for the first time in many years. After the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, White returned to private life after thirty years of public service. He formed the John C. White Consulting firm and he remained a “behind-the-scenes consular to the Democratic Party” and a power-player in Washington until his death. Among his clients were longtime friend and Texan Oscar Wyatt of the Coastal Corporation.
White died in Washington, D.C., on January 20, 1995. His funeral was the first to be held in the Rotunda of the Texas State Capitol, and Republican George W. Bush was governor. White was one of the rare politicians who worked well with both parties. When he was first hospitalized with a serious unknown illness two years before his death, Republican President George H. W. Bush had the White House physician call to see if he could help. White's bi-partisanship was best reflected in his two funeral services—a funeral and graveside burial in Austin on January 27, 1995, and a later memorial service at the First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., on January 31, 1995. Democratic presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson (whom White helped advise during his 1988 presidential campaign) conducted the funeral and graveside service in Austin. White’s close friend, Republican presidential candidate Senator Bob Dole, gave one of the eulogies in Washington. White loved politics and once said, “Politics isn’t a war, it’s a process. I want to win every election, but I’ve never felt I compromised my principles by having friends on the other side or hearing another point of view.” He is buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.
Austin American-Statesman, January 21, 24, 28, 1995; February 1, 1995. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, October 21, 1992. Funeral Service Bulletin for John C. White, First Baptist Church of Washington D.C., January 31, 1995. Jimmy Carter, “Department of Agriculture Nomination of John C. White To Be Deputy Secretary,” March 9, 1977, Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=7138), accessed November 20, 2013. Caleb Pirtle III, Deep Roots: A Celebration of Texas Agriculture and a People’s Love of the Land (Dallas: Dockery House Publishing, 2007).
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Uploaded on November 22, 2013. Modified on December 2, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.