In the 50 years he owned and operated White’s Hardware in Greenport, Sundays were Bob White’s only day off. And although he worked Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., it wasn’t uncommon for Mr. White’s home telephone to ring on a Sunday when someone, in the middle of painting their living room, inevitably found their supplies running low.
Such scenarios were never a problem for Mr. White, who would open his Main Street shop without hesitation so that a neighbor in need could grab a gallon of lacquer.
“That’s just how he was and that’s why people remember him and respect him,” said his daughter, Marilyn Corwin.
Mr. White, who was known as Greenport’s go-to guy for anything and everything, died at home Dec. 28 after suffering complications from congestive heart failure, Ms. Corwin said. He was 90.
The Greenport native was born March 2, 1926, at his family’s home on South Street and joined the U.S. Army in 1944. His service during World War II took him to Germany and Italy and he fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Soon after returning to Greenport in 1946, Mr. White took over his father, Washington’s, hardware store, which had opened in the early 1930s. There, he continued to sell gloves and nets to fishermen who made their way to the harbor, sometimes astounding customers with his inventory.
“You could be looking for the most minute, crazy thing and he’d say, ‘Hold on a minute, I think I have one of those upstairs’ — and then he’d walk upstairs and he’d come down with it,” Ms. Corwin recalled. “People were amazed because he had so many different, unusual things. He was always wanting to help people out, especially if they were in a mess.”
Mr. White’s help extended to Greenport newcomers looking to establish their own businesses. Young strangers would visit the store, his daughter said, asking if he’d extend a line of credit to help get them started. Her father always did so with nothing more than a handshake.
“My father believed in a gentleman’s agreement and he stood by it,” she said, adding that everyone he assisted was faithful about paying him back.
Mr. White’s civic-mindedness reached well beyond the walls of the hardware store, which changed owners in 1990. The shop was listed for sale in 2014 and is now closed.
“He was a pillar of Greenport,” said Greenport Mayor George Hubbard, who noted the numerous groups and village committees Mr. White belonged to. He once served as a Greenport Village trustee and was a past board president of Floyd Memorial Library and a member of the Greenport chapter of the American Legion.
Possessing a wealth of knowledge about all things Greenport, Mr. White was also treasurer of Stirling Historical Society for around 35 years. He could answer any question about anyone or anything, Ms. Corwin said, including who grew up in what house and when local churches were founded.
“He had the most amazing memory,” she said. “He was one of the last ones who could really tell you what is the actual fact, not the made-up fact.”
In 1990, Mr. White became a founding member of the Railroad Museum of Long Island in Greenport, going on to offer his carpentry skills and knowledge of paint to the “Tuesday crew” who worked to restore a wooden 1927 Long Island Rail Road caboose. He and his wife, Lillian, who died in 2014, were both active in the museum and created a lasting legacy there, said the organization’s president, Don Fisher.
The couple was particularly interested in the history of railroads in Greenport and the theory that the village was the inspiration behind the founding of the Long Island Rail Road, Mr. Fisher said. He and other founding members made sure the former LIRR freight house the organization calls home didn’t go to waste.
“Bob really, essentially, saved a very important part of Long Island history,” Mr. Fisher said.
Early last month, the Greenport Fire Department threw a party to celebrate Mr. White’s 70th year as a member. He served as chief for three years in the 1950s and drove the department’s Relief Hose Co. truck well into his 80s — something his grandson and namesake, Bob Corwin, now handles. He never stopped attending meetings and was active with the department’s scholarship committee, Ms. Corwin said.
“He gave back to the community 100 percent and now his grandchildren are doing the same thing,” said Greenport native James Glew, a family friend who attributes his career in the professional fire service to encouragement and a reference from the Whites.
Fellow members looked up to Mr. White, said Greenport Fire Chief Wayne Miller.
“He was a great guy to have around the firehouse,” he said. “He had a lot of knowledge for the firefighters, young and old. Everybody respected Bob. He was a good man.”
In addition to being Greenport’s “go-to guy,” Mr. White’s daughter said, he was always there for his family. He could do anything, she said, whether it was providing financial advice, fixing a plumbing problem or solving car troubles.
“I have to say he was a family man first and foremost,” she said. “I have two brothers and he was always there for the three of us. We couldn’t have asked for a better father, I’ll tell you that.”
In addition to his daughter, Ms. Corwin, Ms. White is survived by his sons, Robert White Jr. of Hayes, Va., and David White of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., along with five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
File photo: Mr. White in 2012 when he was honored for 65 years of continuous service to the Greenport Fire Department. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)