Nestled in a seaside cabin along the shore of San Juan Island, Ben White, 53, passed away Saturday, July 30, at 3 p.m. after succumbing to a six-month battle with cancer.
At the end, White was surrounded by family and several of his closest friends, including daughter Julia, son Ben, and his father Benjamin White Sr.
After a lifetime fighting for the rights of Native Americans, wild animals, and the environment, White’s battle with cancer proved to be his last stand. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of abdominal cancer in late January and tried without success to have it removed through surgery and chemotherapy.
In the days just preceding his death, a steady flow of people from across the nation passed through his doorway on personal pilgrimages to share their love, respect and final goodbyes with an imaginative, irreverent and tireless warrior. As the final moment grew near, his breath “became a whisper,” said David Howitt, one of White’s closest friends during the past 19 years. “With each breath he just quietly faded a little more, until he became still.”
The middle son of an Air Force Lt. Colonel, White was rarely still or quiet when expressing his lifelong commitment to wildlife, natural habitats, those who lacked the power or voice to battle authority, and indifference.
At 16, he began a life of activism when he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan for a story on white supremacist groups for a high school newspaper. He was arrested in numerous demonstrations, chained himself to floating cages at the Ballad Locks to protest the slaughter of sea lions, and helped blockade the port of Newfoundland during a 10-day protest against the slaughter of baby Harp seals near the Magdalene Islands in 1999. That year, at the age of 47, White devised what may prove to be his most publicized achievement during a lifetime of activism. He will long be remembered nationally as the grandfather of the oversized, green turtle costumes worn by peaceful demonstrators during the WTO convention in Seattle in 1999.
Here in the San Juans, he will also be remembered as an articulate candidate for county commissioner in 2004, representing the Green Party.
White’s latest battle, however, did not make headlines around the world or cause a ripple in the evening news broadcasts, as most of his adventures often had. He waited patiently for what he liked to conceive as a new adventure, Howitt said. Friends and family also patiently waited and provided comfort and support through his final hour.
“The outpouring of support and love for Ben has been just incredible,” said Ben’s brother Wesley. “I honestly don’t know how we as a family would have coped with this otherwise.”
In January, while attempting to put a halt to seismic testing of a massive underwater crater off the Yucatan Peninsula, the first sign of White’s terminal disease emerged in the form of severe stomach pain. The cancer was diagnosed following his return to the U.S.
Fittingly, White’s burial and memorial service, as was his life, will be an unconventional celebration of life at his request Aug. 3, at 1 p.m. A funeral procession, led by eight WTO turtles as his honor guard, will leave Mariella Inn and guide his body to its final resting place at the Community Cemetery on Madden Lane, on San Juan Island. White’s colleagues from the Natural Guard, a collective of arborists he founded, will serve as pallbearers. The Island Drummers, a local drum-circle group, will provide music for the procession. Graveside services will begin at 3 p.m. A celebration of White’s life will be held at the Mariella Inn following the service.
White’s family asks that donations be made either to the Ben White Fund at Islanders Bank or the Animal Welfare Institute, P.O. Box 3650, Washington, D.C. 20027.