Gustavson Column: He lasted a lifetime, but his art lives forever


We always knew Rob White had arrived at The Suffolk Times office because our mascot, an aged chocolate Lab named Maggie, would begin barking as he approached the front door.

We never really determined if this was because she liked or disliked him, but it certainly made for a grand entrance befitting a man of Rob’s immense talents and presence.

And these grand entrances continued throughout the many years he served as this newspaper’s award-winning editorial cartoonist, most often at our door to consult on cartoon concepts with our editor and his distant cousin, Jeff Miller.

I can’t quite remember when I first became aware of Rob’s skill as an illustrator and painter, but I remember exactly where it was: the old Galley Ho restaurant on the waterfront in New Suffolk, where an amazing portrait he painted of a gnarly man wearing a large woolen sweater hung near the front entrance. Simply put, it was a masterpiece worthy of Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud. I immediately tried to buy it, but Rob said it wasn’t for sale. (Years later, he agreed to sell us his fun-loving painting of vehicles stacked up on Greenport’s lower Main Street, and I’m proud to say it hangs to this day in the front hall of our home.)

Fast-forward a few months (or was it years?), and our inquiries about Rob unearthed the fact that he had been a friend and associate of folk singer Harry Chapin, who died in an auto accident on the Long Island Expressway in 1981. In fact, Rob did all the drawings for Chapin’s 1975 book, “Looking … Seeing — Poems and Lyrics by Harry Chapin.”

That was more than enough for us. Soon thereafter, Rob agreed to begin contributing weekly editorial cartoons,which quickly became one of the paper’s most popular features. They were at once funny, thought-provoking and fiercely defensive of our way of life here on the East End. And they were recognized, year upon year, as the very best editorial cartoons in the state by the New York Press Association.

Rob created many memorable cartoon characters, but my absolute favorite was Stella, the frumpy woman wearing a polka dot dress who appeared in so many of his classics.

Eventually, the newspaper lost Rob’s services because he was a man of many talents, interests and vocations — including landscape architecture, substance abuse counseling and fine art. In recent years, even in the face of his declining health, Rob concentrated once again on his painting, and his works have become prize possessions of many collectors of fine art here and afar.

In the end, that realization is the primary solace I take away from Rob White’s untimely passing last week at the age of 70. Not only will his memory live on, but so, too, will his art.

The author is a former publisher of The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at [email protected]