Jun 25 2008

¡Don White Presente!

Don White
If you knew Don personally, please feel free to post a comment to share your thoughts.

Read LA-Indymedia’s breaking news report of Don’s passing here.

Last Sunday my friend Emma called me and said, “Look there’s this nasty rumor going around that Don White was found dead in his apartment.” I was shocked but didn’t believe it for a second. I called Don’s home and heard his answering machine message. I didn’t leave a message. I called around to several friends who knew Don better than I and found that it was true. Our dear friend Don White, whom I had just seen one week earlier, answering phones in KPFK’s phone room, was apparently dead.

The shock was too deep to bear alone. I awoke my sleeping husband, who also knew Don. We hugged and cried together, unable to believe it. We had known Don White since our early days of activism in LA, when we had just moved to the city and were looking for ways to get involved. There was Don, on the streets, in the meeting halls, behind the scenes, and out in front fundraising. He was everywhere, he was always smiling, and yet involved in the serious work. He never complained about anyone or anything. He was a peace maker, a warrior, a worker and a leader. He was my companero. He was my friend. And he was the friend of thousands of you out there. Each one of you who knew Don White has a story to tell about him. In my effort to process my grief, I poured myself into the work of putting together today’s memorial program for Don.

— Sonali Kolhatkar

* * *


While Don White was widely known by so many in the activist community, he kept his personal life very private. Almost no one knows the details of Don’s family, or even exactly where he lived. Don White was born in Anacortes, Washington. As a college student in the late 50s, he was active against the repression by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He moved to LA in 1963 and taught history at Irving Junior High School. Don was a charter and lifetime member of UTLA, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, and participated in every teachers’ union strike from 1963 until his retirement in 1997.

His trip to Guatemala in 1976 changed his life and started a relationship with the people of Central America that continued until the day he died. He joined the board of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador or CISPES, and remained a leader in CISPES-LA. He coordinated and addressed countless rallies, demonstrations, fundraisers, teach-ins, delegations, material aid drives, congressional visits, civil disobedience actions demanding an end to U.S. intervention in El Salvador and Central America to Central America.

In addition, Don was an organizer of scores of city-wide coalitions addressing various other progressive causes including peace in the Middle East and the treatment of immigrants. He often worked as a “Legal Observer” working with the National Lawyers Guild, wearing his fluorescent green hat at demonstrations.

Don White was also a founding member of the Southern California Fair Trade Network. He organized for the WTO protests in Seattle and similar actions around the U.S. Most recently he was involved in organizing the historic immigrants’ rights marches in LA. Don also served on the Boards of the Office of the Americas and Americans for Democratic Action. He was also the chair of the KPFK Local Station Board. He remained on KPFK’s board as a member.

Don apparently died of a massive heart attack at his apartment over the weekend, as he was packing a bag to go to a wedding in his family. His death has left thousands grieving not only here in Los Angeles, but at the CISPES national office in Washington DC, and indeed in El Salvador, where members of the various social movements knew and loved him as a dedicated supporter of their cause.

Many many people remember Don and grieve for him. The loss is still so new, the pain so fresh. We spoke this week with a sampling of Don’s friends and allies who knew him personally and are trying to deal with losing him so suddenly. This is by no means a complete set of voices. We have missed many who were close to him, because of time and other constraints. These voices represent all of us who miss Don White and loved him dearly.

* * *


Last year, when Don turned 70, in typical fashion, he didn’t want to make a big deal about it and only agreed to have a celebration if the party was also a fundraiser for CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. A great way to commemorate Don is to make a contribution to CISPES in his name. That’s the way he would have wanted it. Donations to CISPES can be made through www.cispes.org, or by calling the CISPES office at (202)521-2510.

Friends of Don are meeting this week to plan a very large and public memorial event for him. Just stay tuned to KPFK to hear about details of this event – we will certainly announce and publicize it.

Please tune into World Focus with Blase Bonpane, a very close friend and ally of Don White, this Sunday for another tribute to Don from 10-11 am.

An article written by Don White for the El Salvador Watch newsletter here

Note, there is also an online blog in tribute to Don at the CISPES website here: cispes.org/donpresente

21 responses so far

21 Responses to “¡Don White Presente!”

  1. I knew of Don’s work as Director of CISPES and greatly respected what he did. However, it was his support of Pacifica that brought us together. I first met him at a fund-raiser for the Pacifica Campaign in 2001 and he was a brother in the Pacifica struggle. Later, as a PNB member, her joined the Affiliates Task Force and continued working with me on affiliate relations until the present. Don was warm, sincere, funny, smart, ethical, wise, tactful, savvy, and the embodiment of integrity. I wish him grace and ease in his transition. I will certainly feel his absence. I hope to learn soon what caused his death.

  2. Don Bustanyon 23 Jun 2008 at 2:40 pm

    Nine days ago, Don White and about ten others of us sat in a KPFK committee meeting at the Peace Center. Don did what he’s become known for over the past few decades–listening, and absorbing, what everyone else had to say, then adding his remarks which were always tactful and often trimmed with wit.
    Then Don did something else we’ve all become accustomed to –he excused himself and left to attend another meeting seeking justice for the oppressed. His participation in any activity that made things better for those who didn’t have it so good was as natural to him as breathing in and breathing out.
    Don White is dead, but Don White will live on in our memories and in the good works he has inspired us to continue.

  3. Otis Maclayon 23 Jun 2008 at 4:18 pm

    I knew Don as a Pacifica National Board member. He was one of the members who never forgot what he was on the board for – to keep Pacifica alive and a contender. His ability to listen and derive a consensus was unmatched and absolutely essential in the contentious environment we’ve developed in the past few years. In many ways, I felt there was a chance because Don was on the Board. His consistent humor and sanity affected us all. My hope is that our memory of him and his effect on us will live on, and we sill incorporate it in our actions. He will be missed.

  4. Casey Peterson 24 Jun 2008 at 12:31 am

    Memories of Don
    by Casey Peters

    Don White was such a ubiquitous presence that I cannot remember how we first met. It just seemed like he had always been there. There among us. Among those of us who have given of ourselves to work together trying to make this a better world. A world of peace, prosperity and cultural exchange. At times he played a leader, speaking from a podium before thousands of people rallying against war and bigotry. But such offerings were never elitist in nature. Speaking to thousands never made him feel too important to listen to one. To anyone. Don White was truly a man of the people.
    It seems so strange to say “was.” The vibrancy that rippled through his soul was remarkable, and it is hard to think that it could come to an end. His excitement about a new idea or even an old project was genuine enough to instill enthusiasm in others. And, as many will recount, he went about the work before us in a way that inspired people to set aside disagreements and focus on the big picture.
    Don’s role in working well with others helped to build a successful week of demonstrations known as D2K to underscore the disappointment that the progressive community felt after two terms of having a Democrat in the White House. My part in that season was working on PCLA2000, bringing a diversity of radical thought together for a People’s Convention. Despite overwhelming commitments, Don lent his support to that effort as well.
    A few months later, shortly after the Pershing Square rally to protest the inauguration of the presidential candidate who lost the popular vote, Don White and my mother (Lee Peters) and I were again in downtown Los Angeles, and rode the Angel’s Flight funicular railway up to California Water Plaza on Bunker Hill. That was just after one o’clock on January 31, 2001, and I remember thinking as we sat by the open door on the downhill end of the train that someone could get seriously injured if the cable were to break. 23 hours later it did with one person killed and several hurt. My Mom said “we were one day from foreverness.”
    In 2003, I was chosen to be the first Local Election Supervisor for a new directly elected Local Station Board at KPFK. Dozens of activists ran for the board. At one point a broadcaster inadvertently announced that Don White would be speaking at an upcoming anti-war rally. Although Don’s candidacy for the board was not mentioned, and he knew nothing of the announcement, it was my duty to pull his recorded candidate statement from the air to provide a fair balance of broadcast exposure for all candidates. Some people complained about that sanction, but Don selflessly agreed that the ruling was reasonable. When the exhausting election was over and the grueling vote count complete, it was my job to announce the results to the crowd gathered at the Peace Center. Sleep-deprived as I was, I made the error of combining the first name of first place finisher Donna Warren with the last name of second place finisher Don White. When I said the first seat on the board goes to “Donna White”, laughter filled the air, and Don responded with a limp wrist gesture and blushing bright red. He went on to serve two years as Chair of the KPFK board.
    Our mutual friend Mike Varady told me he’d asked Don why he was so quiet about being gay. Don had said he was proud of it but that just wasn’t his political emphasis. Although Don’s personal life was in accord with his politics, he did have a life that went beyond politics. Some of my favorite memories of him are just bumping into him at places like Fatburger, a fish and chips shop, and recently in downtown Long Beach. My wife Marilyn had many conversations with Don that never got political.
    One particularly meaningful act was Don driving to my Mom’s house just under the deadline to deliver a letter telling the probate court how happy Lee Peters had been when living an active social life in the care and company of Marilyn and me.
    At a Washington DC meeting of the Pacifica National Board in April 2007, when I was introduced as the new National Elections Supervisor, Don made a point of telling the Directors that they were getting “2 for 1” because of my hard-working supportive wife. Only he was observant and thoughtful enough to publicly recognize a woman’s unsung contribution.
    That summer, I checked one of my email accounts on Bastille Day and came across one from Frank Dorrel entitled “Martin Sheen invites you..,” that was actually an invitation to Don White’s 70th birthday party that very night! It was a joyous event with a wonderful variety of refreshments and music where I saw several friends I hadn’t seen for years. More importantly, there were activists from competing factions who were all there to celebrate their friendship with Don White. Now we will all gather again to remember Don as a bridge builder among peace makers.
    Six months ago, Don White took time out from his work at the CISPES office (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) to pick up KPFK ballots and Election Supervisors and give us a ride to the Peace Center for the LSB vote count. That was reflective of his style of leadership. He was never too proud to do “Jimmy Higgins” work, named after the Upton Sinclair title character who devoted himself to thankless grunt work necessary to keep the movement going. Don lead not by edict but by example. With Don White having gone to his great reward, it is now incumbent upon a new generation to step forward to carry on the struggle.

  5. Robertoon 24 Jun 2008 at 9:01 am

    I just got word that Don White, a much-beloved, longtime companero in the movement for peace and justice in El Salvador, passed away. People of many walks of life, many movements – women’s, GLBT, Middle East peace, labor, immigrant rights, education, Venezuela solidarity and others- around the planet mourn his passing as they celebrate his life. Though he fought many battles in many wars, none moved Don like that of his beloved El Salvador.

    Were we, as a society, better able to measure commitment to social justice as we measure baseball, basketball or American Idol stats, Don would surely have won many laurels and trophies for many accomplishments. Without a doubt, Don, a teacher who lived, loved and worked in Los Angeles, holds the U.S. record for organizing marches in a single lifetime. Because the movement in solidarity with El Salvador staged so, so many marches, protests and other events for so many years, Don, the dean of logistics, probably had more experience than anyone I’m ever likely to meet again. And, if I know Don, he’s likely already conspiring to set records for organizing in the Struggle of the Great Beyond.

    His bubbly, kitschy humor was also unmatched when it came to raising money, something many of us first learned about from watching Don. It still brings a smile to remember how he made money glide magically into the hats, bags or other makeshift receptacles for cash, checks and other donations to any of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of large and small events he pitched at in English- and in his broken Spanish, which included the word “Companero” in every other sentence.

    But more important than any logistical or fundraising capabilities, was Don’s possession of the one quality that has distinguished and will continue to distinguish the true revolutionary from the rest: that essential combination of unconditional love backed by incessant action. I’ve met many in the U.S. who’ve given heart and soul to distant causes in tropical lands, but none like Don. Long after many “in solidarity” people have left the Salvadoran people as a memory, many of us will remember Don as a light reminding us that we were never alone before, during and after that long, dark night of war. He was a friend I will mourn for many nights.

    In his honor, please take a moment to look and meditate on this pic of Don (last man on the right, former member of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), for it is indeed how our friend, our companero, Don White, would like us to remember him. And as you do so, you too will remember one of those who fit the description of a Bertolt Brecht poem Don loved deeply,

    Hay hombres que luchan un dia

    y son buenos

    Hay otros luchan un ano

    y son mejores

    Hay quienes luchan muchos anos

    y son muy buenos.

    Pero Hay quienes luchan toda la vida:

    esos son los imprescindibles

    (There are men who struggle for a day

    and they are good.

    There are men who struggle for a year

    and they are better.

    There are men who struggle many years,

    and they are better still.

    But there are those who struggle all their lives:

    These are the indispensable ones.)


    Companero Don White, Presente!

  6. Walter Lippmannon 24 Jun 2008 at 10:02 am

    It seems impossible to imagine that Don White isn’t with us any longer. He was a fighter for social justice, and a person of immense personal integrity. That’s why Don was someone who could be called on to chair a meeting where people from otherwise widely-divergent perspectives were discussing and debating how to more effectively united their efforts and forces to bring about more justice in our deeply-troubled world.

    We really need to find ways to minimize personal frictions and see one another as friends and companeros in the struggle, regardless of divergent proposals for strategy and tactics in the effort to bring about a better world.

    And we need to reach out and maintain contact with one another.

    Don White, Presente!

  7. Rachel Bruhnkeon 24 Jun 2008 at 3:45 pm

    Don White was a humble yet vigorous and extremely effective LA progressive activist. I remember him mostly from CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.

    I was 21 years old in 1989 when the Salvadoran Jesuit priests, their household helper and her daughter were found murdered in El Salvador.

    I was just a kid, but I will always remember Don White at the center of organizing the Wednesday Morning Coalition that did civil disobedience in front of the downtown Federal Building to stop US Military Aid to the Salvadoran government. I remember him all over that downtown church, organizing, speaking, moving, mobilizing people.

    Those were lifechanging experiences for me, getting arrested to stop a murderous US foreign policy and immoral war, sitting handcuffed in a room in the basement of the Federal Building with dozens of other people, quietly, one by one, sharing why we were there…

    I can honestly say that Don White, therefore, changed my life, steered my life for what it has been for the last 20 years. If it weren’t for Don White, and tireless ORGANIZERS like him who set those actions up, I might have been alone with my grief for El Salvador and Central America, and my powerlessness to do anything. And I might not have gone on to a lifelong involvement in justice and sovereignty for Latin America. For those of us coming of age in the 1908’s Central America was our Vietnam, and bold humanitarians like Don White our clarion callers.

    His passing is so sad, however we know that his work has had untold multiplying effect, as the thousands he directly touched and empowered have gone on to directly affect and teach others, and in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “and so on and so on…”

    Don White’s power and influence cannot ever truely die because of this, and we recommit ourselves to peace and justice work every day, in any way we can, especially to create spaces and empower the youth of today to follow their most human and humane instincts to save the world, one person at a time, together.

    !Don White, Presente!

    Rachel Bruhnke
    CUSSP (Cuba-US Sutainability Project)

  8. Jim Odlingon 24 Jun 2008 at 7:41 pm

    In 2004 I traveled to El Salvador with Don in a CISPES delegation to observe the presidential elections. I had met Don before in the streets at many demonstration he had helped lead to end the wars and injustices in Central America.

    When we got to El Salvador to avoid deportation we had to lie low for three days until waiting for credentials as Official Observers. The US-backed government was excluding arrivals who came as election observers. Like in the streets of LA, Don helped lead the delegation to prevent an unjust consequence.

    While the delegation visited the San Salvador offices of the Social Security Workers Union office, Arena Party supporters drove by in trucks tossing powerful fireworks simulating an attack. Don helped keep things cool. He had known worse.

    His since of humor is well known in demonstrations, fundraisers and board meetings. One night part of the delegation was in rural Usulután. Several of us slept in hammocks in a small barn while the evicted animals roamed noisily outside. Don did not hear any of the bleating and woke surprised and laughed in his comradely way at those who lost sleep.

    Whatever it was, Don found ways to make for commonality of action among people, and did so with a sense humor that reflected that he knew we are all in this together, even with our differences.

  9. Anna Kunkinon 24 Jun 2008 at 10:47 pm

    I have memories of Don….on a bus to a border event. Making sure that everyone had water. Making sure everyone on the bus had his cell number in case something should happen to anyone. Making sure that we were all accounted for on the way back. I remember him on the stage at hundreds of fundraisers….always asking for money for others. Always giving his all. Always willing to hold the banner and stand on the curb at events….never needing the spotlight. Always smiling. I never heard a bad word about Don; not in anger or disappointment. And he was one of the few people in this movement of such strong and passionate, sometimes disparate views, who would fearlessly get in the middle and facilitate peace.Humble is too little of a word to use for this man. Maybe love is a better word. Because yes; what motivated Don White was always love. I wish I could have been a student in his history class. If I had heard about humanity from the heart and soul of Don White I would have fallen in love with every aspect of it long before I did.

    We lived in the same neighborhood and I would run into him randomly in the parking lot of the shopping center on the corner of Sunset and Vermont or at a local eatery …..the House of Pies….where he would often sit at the counter eating breakfast and talking politics with the regulars and old timers who met there. They smiled and jokingly called him the commy….in good spirit. I doubt if they really had a clue. I remember him always with a smile …..and always so glad to see me whether I ran into him as a neighbor or as a fellow activist at events. He always treated me as if I were someone special to him….and I felt that. Felt that he was an uncle. That I had always known him.

    As busy as he was he would think of me and send me job referrals when I was looking for work. When I thought it was important for him to meet someone, he didn’t question for one second. He made time; arrangements to meet for a meal. Of course I understood that he was like that for everyone; for all of us. That he made each and every one of us feel that special.

    He was a man who lived gracefully….and in grace he is part of our lives and our history. I cry because I will miss him and because I feel blessed that I knew him

  10. Robert Dhondrupon 25 Jun 2008 at 10:23 am

    Wow, we lost a major warrior for peace and social justice. I don’t know how many times I have been organizing (or being arrested for non-violent CD) with Don, but I surely with everyone else will miss his calming presence and voice in the so many things he’s been a part of with me. Don, we will miss you but we shall always continue the good fight because we know you would want us to. !Don White, Presente!

  11. Andrew Tonkovichon 25 Jun 2008 at 11:16 am

    Sonali and Uprising: Thank you so much for the special show this morning. My wife Lisa Alvarez and I met Don nearly 25 years ago when she worked running a phone bank for CISPES at the Women’s Building with Don, Cricket Parmelee and Hugh Byrne. We were in our mid-20s and he took us in, mentored us. We’d eat dinner at Gorky’s and then stay late after to tally up the calls to members asking their permission to send a Western Union Opinion Message re El Salvador. I think they cost all of 9 dollars back then, which was a big deal. When I first heard he’d died, Monday morning on your show (as we were actually driving to the station), I thought of that wonderful Billy Bragg line from the song “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward:: “You can act up with the activists or sleep in with the sleepers.” Don was ubiquitous. He was, my smart wife reminds me, always either in a meeting or on the street, even and persistently when some tired of both, often dismissing direct action. He, of course, did every kind of politics, understanding the place of each. I write fiction and once wrote a short story with a Don White organizer type character in it except that my effort at making him anything but the real Don failed and I just gave up and tried to reproduce Don himself and finally just called this character “Don White,” unable to fictionalize a fellow who was already so much larger than what passes for life, at least as lived by most people. After its publication, I sent the story to share with Don. He wrote back, with a long note in his loopy longhand, every bit of the paper covered and, yes included in an envelope full of fliers, clippings. He was thrilled, and seemed to celebrate his arrival into literature as it were, with big exclamation points in his note and that joyous congratulation and necessary excitement that animated everything he did. So, some big punctuation here — exclamation points — for Don White, mentor, comrade, friend!!!

  12. adminon 25 Jun 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Your program this morning was so moving, and I could hear the emotion in your voice and from many of the callers. It was good of you to do the show and give Don’s friends in the peace movement an opportunity to express their feelings and share their loss. Many of us have had our differences, but about Don everyone who knew him agreed: he was a kind and gentle man and a friend to all. Every cause of injustice was important to him. I don’t think there was a protest or event that he wasn’t there. He will be missed by so many.

  13. Erendira (Blair)Mareson 25 Jun 2008 at 9:12 pm

    My captain, My captain, the bells toll for you!!
    Don White will always be immortalize in my mind as the eighth grade history teacher who encouraged the passion for learning, courage to question everything, and nurtured me from a scared little caterpillar to a strong butterfly. Mr. White believed in his students and was never afraid to speak up against those who discouraged them with his calm firm voice and piercing blue eyes, which melted their hearts. Mr. White’s unwavering devotion to his community and students exemplified strong moral fiber, character, and understanding about our responsibilities to each other. He was a compassion person with unlimited energy, patience, humility with the ability to make each person feel special in his presence. Don White’s legacy lives on in each person he has touched, which will continue to reshape the world. He will truly missed but never forgotten for his passion for teaching continues in me. I will continue his legacy in creating a new generation of leaders of collaboration of change.

  14. Jeffrey Pilchon 26 Jun 2008 at 12:42 am

    This is a heartbreaking loss. Don White worked tremendously hard and with a ton of love in his heart. Not only that, the guy knew his politics so he could always be counted on for good advice! Good advice and an infusion of encouragement made him indispensable to so many. We are probably all underestimating JUST how many people that Don touched.

    What an inspiration he was and will be always be. Your forever in my heart Tio Blanco !

  15. Sheila Goldneron 26 Jun 2008 at 11:25 pm

    I also knew Don White. I am at a loss for words to appropriately commemmorate his life. What comes to mind seems trite. He always made me feel welcome. I agree with what people have said, that he was energetic and full of life. I have cried several times, thinking of him, and listening to the tributes on KPFK.

    I have a friend in a convalescent hospital that I go to see as often as I can. Sometimes, I go to a nearby hamburger place to get her some food. I told one of the guys there about Don and when I mentioned El Salvador, he gave me his e-mail address, so I forwarded him one of the e-mails with several tributes to Don. Tonight, I forwarded him one of the e-mails announcing the Memorial on August 10. Maybe he’ll come.

  16. Paul Baker Hernandezon 30 Jun 2008 at 10:37 am

    Dear Friends,

    Thank you for this chance to join you in expressing our grief for Don’s sudeen death.
    Late last year I stayed with him while on tour from Nicaragua. He made me up a bed in his tiny flat, fitting the sheets with his own hands, while asking about our Nicaraguan family and outlining the entire US political situation. A man for all friends and for all seasons indeed.

    Our family here – with whom he in turn stayed in recent years – and his many compas in Nicaragua join with you all in mourning a great man,
    and, as he would wish, in renewing our commitment to his shared struggle for justice and his wonderful dream of peace.

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