"He’s probably the greatest man I’ve ever met."
Of all the organizations, funds, and people who have given the Partners money throughout the last 20 years, Thomas J. White is perhaps the most important benefactor. Mr. White is a self-made millionaire whose goal is to die broke; it looks like he will succeed.
Thomas White and his five siblings grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts with an alcoholic father. The suffering in his own family influenced White to want to help others later in life. He went to Harvard on an ROTC grant and graduated in 1942, becoming a paratrooper in World War II two days after his graduation, After he got back from the war, White made his first large gift of monetary donation to the needy: the recipient was a friend from the army who was having troubles. White gave him $200, which returned the man to his family, so that he could begin to rebuild his life. In 1947, Tom White took over his father’s construction company, and it was here that he made his fortune. However, White did not seek to hold on to his money. Before PIH, White funded many projects for the poor of Boston, including the Sojourner House, which educates adults, and many parishes in the Roxbury area of Boston.
In 1983 Mr. White met Dr. Farmer in Haiti. In Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, the story of their meeting suggests that Farmer was insistent on an interview with White. When we spoke to Mr. White, however, he informed us that the story in the book was “not correct”. What actually happened was this: at the request of Project Bread, White had funded a communal bread oven that would save Haitian women 20 miles of travel each week for bread. The folks at Project Bread pushed White relentlessly to go meet Paul Farmer. When he went to see the bread oven, they finally met. Dr Farmer was initially skeptical of the rich man, assuming that he would be selfish. However, after asking White whom he hadvoted for in the last election (White voted against Reagan and supported unions), Farmer learned better. In White’s words “we hit it off right away”. Their meeting led to the founding of Partners In Health, which received its first million dollars from Tom White. White provided any funding the small organization needed, in Director Ophelia Dahl’s words, “Tom would simply say, okay how much will it coast, we’ll do it.” Tom White has also given funding to many other goodwill organizations, and tries to remain personally involved in the organizations he supports.
However, White does not want any recognition. He has resisted any form of recognition, even down to small plaques in the buildings he has funded, but the board of Partners in Health finally named a treatment center after him in 1999. When we contacted him and asked for information, he responded with several newspaper articles which gave him heavy praise, However, he included a handwritten note with the package that read, “Do not believe this stuff-pure propaganda!!!” White’s only regret is, in his own words, that he's "sorry I don’t have more money to give away.”
With his donations to Partners In Health and various other charities, Tom White has saved thousands of lives, and improved many others.