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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI’s oldest grad Nelson C. White dies at 102

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Nelson C. White, URI’s oldest alum, died this month at 102. He was the 11th generation descendent of Peregrine White who was born on the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor in 1620. Perhaps White’s pioneering spirit as a chemist, entrepreneur, and businessman was inherited. He remained physically active until his death. He was often spotted walking around the Watch Hill area of Westerly.

Born in Cranston, he graduated from the University, then known as Rhode Island State College, in 1925 with a degree in chemical engineering. The following year, he wed his childhood sweetheart, Lily Haven. The couple was married for 60 years until she died in 1986.

White received URI’s first and only “Master of Engineering” degree in 1931. The University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1971. In addition, when former Dean Thomas Kim initiated the Engineering Hall of Fame in 1996, Nelson became the College of Engineering’s first inductee.

Early in his career White ran an electrochemical plant in Fields Point, Providence, riding out the 1938 Hurricane there.

He joined the International Minerals and Chemical Corporation at the start of World War II and opened a munitions plant in Austin, Texas. After the war, the company sent him to Europe to learn German electrochemical technology.

He later worked for the company at various sites and was responsible for opening large potash mines in Alberta, Canada. He became the company’s general manager in 1950 and worked at its headquarters in Chicago. He became chairman and CEO of the company in 1966, retired in 1971, but remained on the board until 1974. He served as chairman emeritus for several years after leaving the board.

He summered in Westerly for many years before purchasing a home in Watch Hill in 1965. He split his time between Florida and Rhode Island after his retirement. He remained a director of the Citrus & Chemical Bank of Florida from 1974, until March 2004, even attending summer board meetings from Westerly. On his 96th birthday, he abandoned his huge 1978 Cadillac Eldorado coupe for a sporty new engineering marvel, a Lexus 430 two-seater with a retractable hardtop. He enjoyed demonstrating how the roof opened and closed at the push of a button.

He remained loyal to and supportive of his alma mater. White donated $4,000 in 1970 adding a match from his company to create awards for engineering students who showed creativity. He continued donating to the award fund over the years. Today, creative students in each of the six departments in the College of Engineering receive White awards during commencement ceremonies.

Donations in White’s memory can be made to the Nelson C. White Award Fund, University of Rhode Island Foundation, 79 Upper College Rd., Kingston, R.I. 02881. For more information, contact Robert Clough, senior development officer, College of Engineering, 874-2162 or rclough@advance.uri.edu.