In Memoriam: J. Patrick White
George W. Spencer, February 2007
From the In Memoriam column of the February 2007 Perspectives
J. Patrick White, professor emeritus of American constitutional law and political history at Northern Illinois University, died on July 12, 2006, at age 79 in Iron River, Michigan. Born in October 1926, in St. Louis, MO, he was raised in Iron River, graduating from Iron River High School in 1944. He enrolled in the University of Michigan in 1945 but entered the U.S. Army in 1946. Later he returned to Michigan, where he earned an AB (summa cum laude) in 1949, an MA in 1950, and in 1957, the PhD for his dissertation on the progressive movement and the judiciary. A dedicated and highly successful teacher himself, he was especially proud to have been a doctoral student of another renowned teacher, Sidney Fine.
Pat White was an instructor at the University of Maryland at College Park, 1955–59 (including a stint in the University College Overseas Program teaching American soldiers in Europe), then an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University 1959–60, and assistant dean in Liberal Arts & Sciences in the same institution, 1960–61, before joining the Northern Illinois University history department in 1961. In the course of his 32 years at NIU he was the director of the Peace Corps Training Program for Malaysia (1961–64), director of Foreign Study Programs (1964–68), and assistant chair of the Department of History (1970–76). He also taught regularly in the NIU British Studies summer program, first at Oxford University and later at Cambridge. At his retirement in 1993, he was greatly pleased that his successor at NIU was another student of Professor Fine.
Pat White's interest in constitutional history centered on the roles of judges and courts as policymakers and on the paradox inherent in having an essentially conservative and undemocratic institution define public policy in a society increasingly committed to democratic values. He focused particularly on the populist and progressive eras, c. 1890–1925, when the courts were perceived by reformers as bastions of a "judicial oligarchy" impervious to popular control. But in his teaching he also placed strong emphasis on contemporary judicial issues, and in his later years he made ample use of television in the classroom, especially recorded excerpts from C‑SPAN programs.
Although he published articles in Far Eastern Survey and Maryland Law Review, Pat White was known and greatly appreciated primarily as a teacher and administrator. He taught generations of undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom he inspired to follow a career in the law. Some of those students maintained contact with him and became close friends. In 1986, he was one of three recipients of NIU's coveted Excellence in Teaching Awards. He was equally valued for his selfless dedication to the historical profession and to NIU, where he served on innumerable committees at the departmental, college, and university levels. After retirement, he created and generously funded the J. Patrick White History Education Endowment to provide assistance to students in the Department of History's Secondary Teacher Certification Program in history and the social sciences. He was no less dedicated and generous to the University of Michigan, and paid particularly close attention to the fortunes of his alma mater each and every football season.
J. Patrick White was a life member of the AHA, the OAH, and the Southern Historical Association, and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, the Illinois State Historical Society, and the Smithsonian Institution, and was an associate of the Clements Library and the Michigan Historical Collections & Bentley Library at the University of Michigan. He will long be remembered as an outstanding teacher, administrator, and benefactor to higher education.
—George W. Spencer
Northern Illinois University