Riding into the sunset

Published 9:18 pm Monday, March 30, 2015

A longtime city employee is being mourned after her death early Monday at the age of 54.

Lynette White was the city’s first tourism employee, initially a one-woman show she ran with the help of volunteers. She started working with the city in 1994 in the city attorney’s office as a legal secretary. She then worked in the Economic Development Department and then moved to Tourism.

Lynette White prepares to set off on a Swamp Roar motorcycle ride. The event, her brainchild during her employment with the city, benefits programs of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Lynette White prepares to set off on a Swamp Roar motorcycle ride. The event, her brainchild during her employment with the city, benefits programs of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Theresa Earles took her place when White retired in 2011 after continued battles with a cancer that had started in 2000. It’s clear, however, that White will never truly be replaceable, Earles said.

Newsletter

Email newsletter signup

“She believed in the tourism mission, and she really believed in improving the quality of life for everyone,” Earles said. “She really laid the groundwork for the tourism program.”

White had a great sense of humor and was willing to do anything to promote tourism or Suffolk in general, Earles said — even if it involved working late nights, wearing a costume or making a dress out of peanuts.

“It just taught you there was nothing she wouldn’t do to further our cause, so to speak,” Earles said. “She took the mission very seriously, but not always herself so seriously. She had a good sense of humor. She and I would be the first people to put on a costume and march in a parade.”

White also had a competitive streak, Earles said. Tourism division employees once dressed as scarecrows, with real straw, in an effort to win a costume contest.

“Straw is not a pleasant accessory,” Earles quipped. “There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for a competition.”

It was that same competitive — and sometimes even stubborn — streak that kept White battling her cancer for so long, Earles said.

“She battled for a very, very, very long time,” she said. “She made it longer than anyone could have ever imagined, because she’s just tough and a strong woman.”

White started her career with a Washington, D.C., law firm, where she got the opportunity to work for President Richard Nixon helping to assemble materials for his presidential library.

She then worked with the firm of Ernst & Young before moving back to her family’s farm in Gates County, where she lived the rest of her life and commuted to her job in Suffolk.

Economic Development Director Kevin Hughes said White’s legacy lives on in the city’s tourism division.

“A lot of the things we do in tourism, like the farmer’s market and Swamp Roar and even today’s Visitor Center, were build on Lynette’s drive and spirit,” Hughes said. “I always found her ton of energy, creativity and spirit just really contagious.”

The Swamp Roar, a motorcycle ride held during Peanut Festival each year, raises money for programs at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. In years with good weather, it attracts more than 1,000 riders, Earles said.

When White wasn’t working, she was just as comfortable riding motorcycles as she was riding horses. City employee and friend Paul Sperling said the pair had a blast riding in the Swamp Roar together last October.

“Riding in the Swamp Roar with her was always a blast and a special treat this past October, as I had purchased her motorcycle a few years back, and she rode her cousin’s bike alongside me,” he said.

The two would compare notes on their daughters, who were about the same age, and share their common interests, which included horses, Sperling said.

“On weekends I often would ride my bicycle from my house to hers and take a break and sit and chat a while,” he said.

Jackie Cherry, president of the Rotary Club of Suffolk, where White was a member, and executive director at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, said White was “one of the first ones when I started working downtown that welcomed me here.”

Cherry said White was the first to show up on projects and cared more about everybody else than she did about herself.

“She was very committed on anything she attempted,” Cherry said. “We were all blessed to have her in our life.”

White was chairman of the Peanut Festival in 2006, despite suffering a recurrence of her cancer, said Linda Stevens, retired executive director of the festival.

“She didn’t want anybody to know it,” Stevens said, adding that White was concerned about making others feel comfortable around her after her diagnosis. “She showed that strong face. She was the most fun-loving person I’ve ever met in my life.”

Her dedication to the event while she was chairman showed her strong will, Stevens added.

“Once she’d make up her mind to do something, few things got in her way,” Stevens said. “But when they did, she worked her way around them. She was just one in a million.”

White is survived by her parents, Thomas White and Dorothy Speight; her children, Daniel Barrow and Lauren Martinez; a granddaughter; two half-siblings; and two nieces.

Services will be private. Memorial contributions may be made to the Jack and Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation, 3282 Northside Parkway NW, Atlanta, GA 30237.