An American Love Story
Happy has a voice like a wind chime, small, but as clear as a summer breeze. She was saying that she had worked at the company for fifty-five years, but then her son, Johnny, stage-whispered in her ear, "Sixty-five years, Mother."
"Was it sixty-five?" she said, surprised at that, and then delighted with it all. "Sixty-five years!" she said into the microphone, and the hundreds of guests, and employees that were there that day answered her with a thunderous applause, and Happy smiled like a little girl.
Some years back, I wanted to meet Happy's husband, who was John Hazen White Sr. I wanted to meet him so that, when I am much older in this business, I will be able to sit and remember his story, and to tell people that I had met him. I have been blessed with the pleasure of meeting a number of heating industry pioneers, but Mr. White has always been my favorite, and here's why.
I made an appointment and drove the three and a half hours from Long Island to Taco's home in Cranston, Rhode Island, and Johnny White met me in the lobby. He explained that his father was ill that day, and home in bed and that he was so sorry, but I wouldn’t get to meet the man who had brought Taco through the difficult years of World War II, and into the modern age of hydronics. I understood, of course, and said that I would come back another time to meet his dad, and then Johnny and I sat for a while, and he brought me up to date on what was new with Taco. And we talked about the business, and about what it's like to have a couple of generations of heating men and women behind you.
And then in walked Johnny's dad.
John Hazen White, Sr. was clearly ill that day, but he smiled and shook my hand, and said that I had driven all the way from Long Island to meet him, so he didn't want to disappoint me. The man left his sick bed and drove to work just to say hello. There was a grace about this man, and a beautiful humility. He got out of bed because he didn't want to disappoint the likes of me. And who the heck am I?
I was so taken by this, and we settled into a conversation about all the things he had done, and the people he had known, and the challenges he had faced, and how the Taco products came to be. Much of what he told me happened during the years when I was a child, and when I was a teenager and couldn't care less about the heating business, and some of it happened while my father was still at war, and my mother was a teenager, writing him letters.
Mr. White sat before me and he told me his story, and the story of his family, and of his company. And Johnny White sat there with me, and I remember that he listened to his dad as hard as I did; wanting to hear, once again, a story that I am sure he had heard many times before. That stays with me – the way Johnny listened.
And after a while, Mr. White excused himself and went back to his bed and I drove home to Long Island, but not before walking the factory floor with Johnny. The people who work there at Taco stopped what they were doing as we came by, and they smiled and nodded hello, and one of the older women hugged Johnny, and he introduced me to her. She had been with the company from when Johnny and I were little kids, and she showed me what she was making, and she was delightful. You don't normally see this sort of enthusiasm in people who are doing repetitive work, day after day. It was different here, though.
And then it was March, 2001, and I was in Germany for ISH, when one evening, while we were at a cocktail reception in an old castle, word came that John Hazen White Sr. had passed on. There were people from Taco there that night and I saw grown men cry. I spent a good amount of time afterwards remembering the day in Rhode Island when Mr. White left his sick bed because he didn't want to disappoint me. This man had grace.
His widow, Happy, stood with the microphone, and the entire Rhode Island Philharmonic sat up there on the stage behind her. The Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island, and the Mayor of Cranston stood just beside her, and so did her son, Johnny. And there were other children there as well, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And Happy spoke to the hundreds of business associates, and friends, and to the hundreds of Taco employees who had left their work for a few hours to be with her for the dedication of this new, 60,000-square-foot addition that Taco had just built. The building would now be named in honor of John and Happy White. Her voice cracked at one point as she told us that she loved us. She said it several times, low and soft as a breeze. I love you. I love you all. And the room exploded in applause, and everyone was on their feet, and I was just glad to be there to see this.
This new addition to the Taco building, which was once a trolley barn, is the first since 1954. Cranston is a crowded New England city, and anything new has to be shoehorned into place. The huge new warehouse had go over here on this end. The challenge, however, was that everything else in the factory was facing the other way. As with most factories, raw material comes in one side and finished product goes out the other. So with this new addition, everything else in the factory had to be turned around. And the employees did all of this work themselves. And they did it while still making the Taco products. Nothing slowed down while they made the move. To me, it was like watching someone change the tires on a car while driving 65 miles per hour. And everyone who works there was smiling about all of this. They knew they were doing something special.
There are acres and acres of empty, inexpensive real estate in other parts of America, and even more of the same in China, and other places where people work for pennies a day.
So why stay in Cranston?
When you get off the highway and drive the narrow streets of this American city you pass shops where they sell coffee and newspapers, and little stores where you can have your clothes cleaned, and corner markets, and other little places of business that depend on the honest trade of ordinary people. And you see children waiting for school buses, and people on their way to work. And you also see those quaint New England homes, thousands of them, and each with a mortgage that comes due once a month. And the people who live in those houses go to work each day, and they are the engine that moves this country forward. You work; you raise your children, and you do the best you can. And in this, you take a quiet pride.
The people of Taco smile as they work, and they want to show me what they're making. They're proud of it. Most have worked in this factory for years and they depend on it for their livelihood, as the factory depends on the people for its own livelihood.
The Rhode Island Philharmonic was there that day because of the support they receive from The John and Happy White Foundation, which also opens its arms to other arts, as well as to charitable organizations, and to social services. To love your neighbor is to help him.
So why stay in Cranston? Because this is an American love story, begun years before I was born, and carried on by a man of grace, who once left his sick bed to meet me, and by a wonderful lady who, with the tinkling of wind chimes in her voice, declared again and again on a cold February day that she loves us all.
And you feel that in this place.