Joseph W. White Jr., the administrator who led Summit County Children Services during its long and bitter strike in 2003 and was its first African-American director, died Monday.
He was 72.
During 20 years at the child welfare agency, he helped to polish Children Services’ national reputation for excellence and colleagues statewide praised him as an elder statesman and mentor.
Mr. White was named director in the aftermath of the 1983 Tara Cook case.
Cook was tortured and starved by her father and his live-in girlfriend, whom Children Services had investigated previously. The 12-year-old girl weighed just 35 pounds.
Under Mr. White’s and the board’s leadership, Children Services worked to repair the internal flaws that allowed it to misjudge the seriousness of her situation that almost led to her death.
But by the end of his career, his image was tarnished, with 2003 proving to be an especially horrendous year.
Two-hundred-seventy social workers waged a five-month strike over case loads and quality of service issues, the longest and most bitter in the organization’s history. Perhaps even more damaging, CSB broke state laws and regulations in its 14-year involvement with an Akron family in which six children were locked in closets, starved and abused.
The abuse so outraged the public that voters vetoed a CSB levy and key constituents refused to endorse it — even though it would not have raised taxes.
Mr. White told the Akron Beacon Journal in 2004 that he hoped his legacy would not be defined by the Kenmore abuse case, so named for the Akron neighborhood in which it took place.
“Truly, we don’t want bad things to happen to kids, but occasionally something happens and it’s still not the total measurement of the agency when you think about all the other families and kids who have been helped,” Mr. White said.
Mr. White was born in West Virginia, the son of a coal miner who moved his family to Lorain County in search of a better life working in a factory.
Elyria High student
The younger White, the second of four children, flourished, serving as captain of the football team at Elyria High School. Racism was alive and well in the 1960s and the color lines were distinct.
While the tradition was for the homecoming queen to be kissed by the team captain, that was forgone the year he was captain.
He went on to play football at the small and historically black Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., until he was sidelined by injuries.
Four other applicants
He pursued social service jobs in Ohio and earned a graduate degree in Illinois before emerging as a finalist for the executive director’s job at the Summit County agency. He and four other applicants spent a day pressing their case before staff and administrators for the plum job paying $44,000 a year.
Mr. White’s name bobbed to the top in part because he seemed to have the broadest appeal among employees, board Chairman Thomas W. Blazey said at the time.
His appointment also drew measured praise from Robin Schenault, a longtime CSB employee who led the Communications Workers of America local.
Staff members viewed Mr. White as a “glimmer of hope,” she said. Her view soured with time. The CWA did not get all it sought in the strike, but Schenault said it raised public awareness of the agency’s shortcomings.
Many people, including an independent panel, blamed the length of the strike on Mr. White’s personal feud with Schenault.
Along the way, Mr. White was named Black Administrator of the Year, a national honor, by the Black Administrators in Child Welfare.
After his retirement in April 2004, he stayed on until the end of the year as a “transition consultant” making as much as $118,000 for the nine-month period, about $4,000 less than he made as director.
In addition to the fracas on the job, Mr. White’s last years at CSB were darkened by the loss of his first wife, Rachel, 62, to whom he was married for 35 years. She was killed in a vehicle accident as she drove to her job at the GM complex in Lordstown in 2000.
The couple had three grown children — Michele Hammond and Michael White of Akron and Joseph W. White III of Springfield, Ohio; and five grandchildren.
Mr. White married for the second time to Cecilia Huffman. The couple lived in Hudson.
His funeral service will be at noon Saturday at the Arlington Church of God in Akron. Calling hours will be from 10 a.m. to noon. Arrangements are being handled by Stewart & Calhoun in Akron.
The family suggests memorial contributions be made to the Joseph W. and Rachel M. White Endowed Scholarship Fund at the University of Akron.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.