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Sutphin Blvd. corner renamed for Tom White

Councilman Ruben Wills is joined by relatives of the late Councilman Tom White as they try to remove the street covering from a sign in honor of White at the corner of Sutphin Boulevard and 116th Avenue. Photo by Christina Santucci
TimesLedger Newspapers

There were many kind words directed at the late City Councilman Thomas White Jr. during a street renaming ceremony in South Jamaica Saturday, but two of the speakers sent a much more powerful message as living examples of his greatest legacy.

White, who was called the lion due to his blunt speech, white beard and piercing pale eyes, served in the Council from 1992-2001 and again from 2005-10 in a district that covered Jamaica, Rochdale Village and parts of Richmond Hill.

White died in 2010 from complications related to cancer at the age of 71, and his spot was filled by now-Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica), who led the street renaming ceremony and said he had a tough legislative act to follow.

“Tom had a tremendous amount of influence,” he said. “But he told me to make sure I take care of the district.”

A crowd gathered to hear stories about the former lawmaker at the senior center named after him before the sign at Sutphin Boulevard and 116th Avenue was revealed.

White, who was fond of repeating aphorisms to his aides, like “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see” or “Never speak to the press,” also founded a drug rehabilitation center called J-Cap, which helped youth at risk get clean and change their lives.

Two former J-Cap graduates, who later in life ended up taking over legislative positions once held by White, spoke at the ceremony.

“I went from being a high school dropout to a college graduate because of Tom,” said a teary Diane Gonzalez, who was admitted to the program when she was 14.

At White’s urging, she went to college and eventually got her master’s in social work at Stony Brook University.

After White stepped down as chief executive officer of the nonprofit, Gonzalez took over and now runs it herself.

Anthony Andrews Jr., now active in Queens politics, was also plucked from a life that could have gone wrong by White, whom he looked up to as a father figure.

“I used to call him ‘Pop,’” he said at the ceremony. “He hated it.”

Under White’s wing, a 21-year-old Andrews won a state committee spot in the 1990s, the spot formerly held by White, he said.

When White died in 2010, Andrews ran for his district leader spot and won.

White also served on the Council Economic Development Committee.

A bevy of lawmakers came out for the ceremony, including southeast Queens politicians from every level of government, along with Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), who recounted White’s storytelling prowess on legislative trips that would keep his colleagues rapt until the wee hours of the night.

White was sometimes criticized for a poor attendance record and a lack of visibility in the community, which Wills said was sometimes due to modesty and later due to illness.

But another of White’s famous sayings indicated that ink on paper is better than being seen or being heard, something that was not lost on his family.

“The sign bearing his name is the black ink on white paper,” his son Brian said.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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