Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

WHITE, BYRON (1917-2002)

University of Colorado football star "The Whizzer" Byron White (right), between 1930 and 1940

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Byron Raymond White was born on June 17, 1917, in Fort Collins, Colorado, but grew up in the nearby sugar beet hamlet of Wellington. His father ran a lumberyard, and his mother was a homemaker. Both Byron and his older brother, Clayton S. (Sam), raised beets and did odd jobs from an early age to help support the family. A full-tuition scholarship took Byron White from this impoverished Plains background to the University of Colorado, where he became class president, all-American in football (second in the 1937 Heisman Trophy vote), and a Rhodes Scholar. (His brother had become a Rhodes Scholar four years earlier.) After a season as the highestpaid player in the National Football League, he went to Oxford, but war forced him to return stateside, where he attended Yale Law School. Following naval service in the South Pacific, he returned to Yale, led his class academically, and then clerked for the chief justice of the United States.

In 1959 John F. Kennedy, whom White had met in England and in the navy, enticed him to help run his impending presidential campaign. After the election, Kennedy appointed White deputy attorney general, and White spent more than a year as the principal administrator of the Department of Justice, with special responsibility for staffing and judicial nominations. He personally went to Alabama in 1961 to oversee treatment of the Freedom Riders. When Justice Charles E. Whittaker of Kansas retired on disability in March 1962, Kennedy named White to the Court, the only Colorado native so honored. White spent three decades on the Court, where he earned a reputation for brilliance if not eloquence and for skepticism toward judicial intervention in social problems unless clearly guided by appropriate legislation. His best-known opinions were dissents involving criminal justice (Miranda v. Arizona), abortion (Roe v. Wade), and separation of powers (INS v. Chadha).

White retired form the Court in 1993 but continued to sit on lower federal courts and to serve the nation in a variety of capacities. He died in Denver, Colorado, of complications from pneumonia, on April 15, 2002.

Dennis J. Hutchinson University of Chicago

Hutchinson, Dennis J. The Man Who Once Was Whizzer White. New York: Free Press, 1998.

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