By Abby DeVeuve, Connections Intern
On Tuesday, September 29th, the first lecture of the fall Talking in the Library series was also the very first lecture given in the new Mary Tefft White Cultural Center Instant Theater. It is fitting, then, that this inaugural lecture was given by John Hazen White Jr., the son of Mary Tefft White, the center’s namesake. Mary Tefft “Happy” White was a beloved alumna of Roger Williams University whose endowment made the Center and the lecture series possible. Her goal in providing the space and the lecture series was to introduce students to accomplished individuals who could share their professional and personal stories in order to inspire students in their search for their own careers. The Center has hosted nearly 400 presentations, including lectures from authors, faculty presentations, and student exhibitions.
Now, to more fully bring the original vision of the Mary Tefft White Center to life, and to expand its capacity as a learning space, it has been renovated as an Instant Theater. When not in use for a lecture, the glass walls enclose an area arranged with clusters of tables and chairs that can be changed into different layouts to accommodate students’ needs.
Seniors Stephanie Ressler, Daniel Ressler, and Eric Valenti have used the updated Center for all of their group project meetings this semester. “I like how we can change around the tables based on what we need them for. I also enjoy the updated, clean feeling of the glass walls,” said Stephanie. Eric commented, “It’s ideal for group work because you don’t disturb others in the library when talking to your group.”
When it is being used for a lecture, the glass walls and doors separate the lecture space from the low-level buzz typical of the first floor of the library. The students in the library are not disrupted by the lecturer, and the lecturer is not distracted by the students. However, the nearly invisible walls make the Center feel like an integrated part of the library because curious library patrons can still see the lecture and decide to join in. The glass is more inviting than closed-off walls, but more private than the previous open space.
The new space is called an “Instant Theater” because of how easily it can convert from student group space to lecture and presentation space. The Center also features a technological update, including four permanently mounted TV screens around the room and one larger screen that descends at the front of the room. These screens add to the functionality of the lecture space and the student space because the library is increasingly being used for multimedia purposes.
The updated Mary Tefft White Cultural Center will advance the purpose of the original space by inviting speakers from the outside community into Roger Williams and allowing these speakers to use the space in new ways. The legacy of Mary Tefft White lives on in this lecture series and in her son, John Hazen White Jr.
To kick off the lecture series, Mr. White talked about education, business, philanthropy, leadership, and civic-mindedness. Standing at the front of the new Mary Tefft White Cultural Center in his Easter-egg-green pants and his “live free or ride” Harley Davidson belt, Mr. White proclaimed, “I love every minute of my life.”
It was clear that Mr. White is grateful for the opportunities he has had, but he also feels a great degree of responsibility for making his life one he can enjoy. According to him, part of why he loves his life is because he feels good about his work, which involves philanthropy and community service. This service begins with his company, Taco Comfort Solutions, a hydronic manufacturing company that he inherited from his father. Mr. White repeatedly stated that his work is for the people: “I don’t go to work every day to make money. I go to work to perpetuate an environment where 700 people and their families can grow. I love my employees with my heart and soul.”
In order to create this work environment, his father created the Taco Learning Center, where employees and their families can take free classes taught by high school teachers and college professors. Classes offered at the Learning Center include English as a second language, math, and civics. The Learning Center is progressive in that it puts the employees’ needs first and treats them like people. Mr. White said that the Learning Center is his father’s greatest legacy, which is one he has been able to perpetuate and expand upon. Since 1994 Taco has run two art and music summer camps for children ages 6-12 and two oceanography camps for children ages 13-17. The camps are open to the extended families of employees.
Mr. White learned to be philanthropic by watching his parents. However, he admits that he did not always have a civic mindset – in fact, he claimed that he was given a job at his father’s company in an out-of-the-way sales position to keep him out of trouble. He surprised everyone, including himself, it seems, by growing his department into one of the largest in the company and then taking over the company from his father.
Mr. White revealed that a turning point came when his father died. “On that day, I had to decide if I believed in myself,” he said, looking at the audience with tangible emotion in his eyes. Throughout the talk, he was personable and intimate, at times revealing his struggles and at others making the audience laugh. He explained that he grew up watching his father take action in civics and politics and realized he wanted to make an impact in the same way. He created the TV show Lookout RI and became a watchdog on issues pertinent for taxpayers. Suddenly serious and subdued, he revealed how he felt responsible to step up as a leader when people told him he was a voice of the people. In the next moment he joked, “Plus, I love being on TV!”
Despite his success in taking over his father’s company and in continuing the mission of the White Family Foundation, Mr. White remains humble and self-deprecating. He does not consider himself a great businessman or a leader, but he does consider himself someone who knows how to consult experts on such topics. This was another main point of his talk: to cultivate relationships with other people and learn from them. Other people are the most important things in the world, he stated, and it is important to get to know their stories. Mr. White knows the names of all 700 of his employees and their family members’ names.
Of course, knowing people is just the first step for Mr. White. The next is helping them. The White Family Foundation focuses on the arts, education, and healthcare, because these are the issues that he believes will create a better community. Mr. White believes that everyone has a responsibility to give back to the community. He stressed that philanthropy is not all about money – it can be giving time and care, and learning about each other.
Mr. White’s own engagement in the community reflects what Roger Williams University is trying to do with the Mary Tefft White Cultural Center – to be present and active in the wider community. While talking about his many blessings and the things he is grateful for, Mr. White captured perfectly this purpose of the Mary Tefft White Center: “The greatest blessing that we’re given in this life is the time to share with others . . . to spend time to listen and to learn. If we listen and we learn, we’ll be better for it.”