Feb 2, 2010

Lee White, Oakland library director, dies

From the San Francisco Chronicle

Lee White - Oakland library director - dies

By Carolyn Jones, Chronicle Staff Writer

When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck, Lee White pulled off the freeway, turned around and raced to the Oakland Public Library.

"She was worried about the books," said her daughter, Cameron White of Berkeley. "She was afraid all the bookshelves had fallen over, and she wanted to check on them."

Such single-mindedness was typical of Mrs. White's devotion to books and the Oakland Public Library in particular, her family and colleagues said. Mrs. White, former director of the Oakland library system, died Jan. 11 in Oakland following a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease. She was 88.

During her 20-year tenure with the library, from 1970 to 1990, the city added four branches to the system, launched an adult literacy program and greatly expanded services to the Spanish-speaking and Asian communities.

"Hiring Lee White was one of the highlights of my career," said Jerry Newfarmer, Oakland's assistant city manager in the 1970s. "She did a fabulous job, not just in the eyes of the city staff and her employees but for the readers as well."

Mrs. White was born Lelia Cayne in Berkeley in 1921. As a child, she was especially close to a friend of her mother's, Jane Curtis, who was library director in Alameda. Curtis was her inspiration for her career, her family said.

After marrying Armand White during World War II, and later raising two children, Mrs. White attended the graduate school of library services at UC Berkeley, now called the School of Information. Her first job out of school, at nearly 50, was answering the night reference phones at the Oakland library, a job she loved, her daughter said.

"She loved everything about being a librarian," Cameron White said.

Mrs. White was quickly promoted to branch manager, and in 1976, after a nationwide search, the city manager hired her as library director.

It was a risky hire, Newfarmer said. Mrs. White had only six years' experience.

"She was so junior, she was on the layoff list," he said. "But we kept hearing feedback about how extraordinary she was, about her warmth, knowledge, natural leadership ability."

Mrs. White oversaw the opening of the Dimond, Brookfield, Cesar Chavez and Asian branches, as well as the African American Museum and Library opening at the Golden Gate branch. She also launched bookmobiles serving Oakland's Native American community and older readers living in nursing homes.

"She had a strong belief that libraries were for everyone, that they're a wonderful resource for all people, of all ages," her daughter said.

After retiring in 1990, Mrs. White served on the board of the Alameda County library.

"She was very social, intelligent, vivacious," Cameron White said. "The library was a wonderful outlet for her."

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. White is survived by a son, Doug White of Morgan Hill; a brother, Douglass Cayne of San Francisco; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

The family requests donations to Friends of the Oakland Public Library, 721 Washington St., Oakland CA 94607, or Salem Lutheran Home, 2361 E. 29th St., Oakland 94606.


Last updated:

October 4, 2016