Three Generations of Devotion to Education

By Emma Forgione

The love of learning runs strong and deep within the White family, spanning three generations of Phi Beta Kappa alumni. A family of writers, linguists, and educational advocates, the White family is truly one for the books, pun intended. 

It all started with Jean Wallace White, who was born August 9, 1918, and recently turned 100 years old. A proud resident of Newark, New Jersey, Jean prompted a devotion to education that was passed down to her children and grandchildren. This chain started even before Jean, with her father who attended Lehigh University and encouraged all four of his daughters to attend college. Jean attended Duke University, graduating with a degree in English. She was extremely active on campus during her time there, including becoming the head of the Diversity Committee, a proud member of Phi Beta Kappa, and being invited to join the Order of the White Duchy, a secret women’s honorary at Duke.

In 1943 she joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the World War II women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve. She went to Smith College for training and graduated number one in her class. She was involved with reading and deciphering communications in other languages during the war, when she met her husband and had three boys. One of them, Richard White, represents the second generation of Phi Beta Kappa and was greatly influenced by his mother’s love of reading and writing. 

He says his mom “was always a very serious student, and contentious, and took her lessons to heart.” Richard was also an English major and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth. He thereafter perused a master’s degree in England at the University of Kent and then a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“I am influenced by my mom, and dad for that matter,” Richard recalls. “They brought us up with the belief in the importance of a liberal education, where you identify specific interests, but you really want to have a broad range of interests.”

“This is something I really do believe in and am always telling students, prospective students, parents, that a broad-based education is really going to prepare you for life, let alone, your career,” Richard said. 

He relayed an anecdote about how his mother would always critique his writing growing up and encourage him to delve into the great works of literature. It certainly left a lasting impression, for he did his doctoral dissertation on critical theory related to Conrad, Forrester, Wolf, and Laurents. 

Higher education is the foundation of Richard’s vocation in career services and corporate college recruiting. He developed career services programs at major universities such as Rutgers and most recently Drew University, where he helps students use whatever educational background they have to its greatest advantage. He is an ardent supporter of the liberal arts and how that form of education makes a candidate adaptable in the professional world. 

“Complementing that development of knowledge with the ability to articulate skills that you’re developing regardless of your major,” he describes, is what he aims to help students do. He wants them to be able to articulate the ways in which their broad education makes them perfect for whatever job they wish to pursue. 

Richard’s own devotion to education he passed on to his daughters Janine and Lisa, both of whom graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers. Janine currently works for a non-profit in London called ARK, which helps grant children higher education through a network of schools, following in her father’s footsteps. Lisa is also involved in education through the American Research Institute, studying bilingualism in children. 

“Liberal arts gives you the freedom to explore and follow your passion,” Janine explains. “It taught me to ask questions.” She also believes that a liberal arts education is a privilege and a luxury that not everyone has, a large part of the reason why she works to expand education to people with less access to it. 

The same way that Jean influenced Richard, he influenced his daughters. His wife Kristen is German, and he encouraged his family to live a multi-cultural life, with frequent visits to Germany to help his children embrace that side of their heritage. “They could have done ‘the American thing’, but they prioritized having a diverse life,” says Janine. As she reflects on how much her family influenced her, she explains her own love of learning. She says liberal arts gives you “the opportunity to not assume you know the answer.” “Never lose that creativity,” she adds, “there is so much to be gained in that openness.” 

Richard was the secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Drew, and every one of his family members is extremely proud of their membership. 

Commenting on her membership, 100-year-old Jean White says, “Phi Beta Kappa—good honor society—proud of myself for Phi Beta Kappa,” and that the most important thing about her education at Duke was “I had to be up and at ‘em!” 

Jean Wallace White (center) at her 100th birthday celebration. Son Richard White is pictured thrid from left, and granddaughter Lisa White is fifth from the left, behind her grandmother. 

Emma Forgione (ΦBK, Muhlenberg College, 2018) is a recent graduate in English and theater with a minor in creative writing from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Muhlenberg College is home to the Pi of Pennsylvania chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.