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Sunday, June 6, 2010
In memoriam: Grace White, centenarian, 1910-2010
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In memoriam

Grace White, centenarian, 1910-2010

Grace White,  one of Beaufort’s oldest residents and by far South Carolina’s oldest woman lawyer, passed away June 1 at the age of 100. Well, she was actually five weeks shy of 100, but she thought she was 100 on the first day of June when with a defiant wink and wave she went to sleep forever.

Grace was determined to reach 100 on her birthday of July 7. She told everyone that was her goal. When her caregivers saw late in May she was becoming confused and might not make it, they arranged her birthday party for June 1. That morning they walked into her room with cake and balloons and sang “Happy Birthday To You”.  She smiled, blew out the single candle representing the 100 years of her life, made the defiant wink and wave as if to say “See, I told you I’d make it, and I did”, and was gone.

Grace White was an only child, born to Arthur J. White and Grace E. Neubert White, both from Ohio, on July 7, 1910, at the Marine Barracks Officers’ Quarters in the Washington, DC, Naval Yard. Her father was educated as a civil engineer, but went into the Marine Corps and received orders before completing his final engineer training. Her mother was graduated from Ohio Northern University with a BS degree.

Grace’s father’s first duty station was Parris Island. He sent for her mother as soon as he found a place for her to stay with a local family. An old family joke is that her mother wrote that she would wait until she got to Yemassee to buy a hat and that he could help her pick it out when she got there. Of course, he knew there was nothing in Yemassee, but he had no way to let her know in time.

Grace never completed a full year of school at one location until, at age 14, she returned to Parris Island in 1924. School age children on Parris Island had to take a boat to Port Royal, then get to school the best way they could from there. Later, the Marines provided a bus because there were so many students. Before moving to Parris Island, she attended school in Santa Domingo at a Spanish school, in Haiti at a convent school where she and four other American students were not well liked, in Quantico, Virginia, and in Galveston, Texas. She was graduated from Beaufort High School in 1928. Included in her graduating class were Beaufortonians Albert and J.B. Kinghorn (twins), Marjorie McLeod Fordham, Arthur Paul, and Bunny Fisher, all gone now.

Grace attended George Washington University in Washington, DC, from which she received her AB degree in 1932 and her law degree in 1934. She passed the District Bar Exam and was admitted to practice in Washington, DC, in 1935. She returned to Beaufort in 1936 and took the South Carolina Bar Exam that same year. She was admitted to practice in South Carolina in December 1936, becoming the first woman lawyer ever licensed in the state.

Grace started her law practice in Beaufort in February 1937 in a shared office with William W. Elliott, a member of the State Legislature. She shared offices with Mr. Elliott for ten years, helping him out when he was in Columbia as a Legislator. Grace’s main practice dealt with tax preparation and Probate Court. Her first real estate abstract was for Brays Island.

Grace never married. At the time she was admitted to the Bar in South Carolina, there were seven other attorneys in Beaufort County, all male, giving her the distinction of being, she was fond of saying, the “prettiest attorney in Beaufort County.” Those attorneys were William W. Elliott, W.J. Thomas, Calhoun Thomas, W. Brantley Harvey, Sr., William N. Levine, Claude Aman, and J.I. Washington. All of them are gone now.

Grace was active in Civilian Defense and Army Aircraft tower watches during World War II, devoting more than 1500 hours of volunteer service in charge of Women’s Watch. She was a member of the Federal Courts of Washington, DC, the U.S. District Court and U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for South Carolina, and the South Carolina Bar Association. She was also a member of the Beaufort County Historical Society and Friends of Beaufort Museum.

On April 17, 2003, when Grace had been practicing law in Beaufort for more than 65 years and had reached the age of being the oldest female lawyer in the state, she was honored with a celebratory luncheon. Her fellow lawyers and her many friends turned out to tell her how much she meant to them. A highlight was the reading of a proclamation by the Governor making that day Grace White Day throughout the state.

Grace White was an institution in Beaufort. She kept her office for decades on the second floor of one of the old frame buildings on Bay Street downtown. When she was not busy in her office she liked to walk down Bay Street, stopping everyone to say hello and talk and talk. Everyone in Beaufort knew everyone else in Beaufort in those days. If you didn’t want to talk with Grace, you had to duck across the street when you saw her coming because a talk with Grace meant at least two hours of her talk.

In 1972 Grace had the good fortune to “inherit” a Beaufortonian, Skipper Von Harten, to look after her for the rest of her life. Skipper’s father, a master automobile mechanic, was dying, and some of his last words were “Look after Miss Grace.” When Skipper’s uncle, also a master automobile mechanic, some years later was also dying, he said the same to Skipper: “Look after Miss Grace.” And so Skipper did, taking dinner to Miss Grace White, cooked by Skipper’s dear wife, Esther, literally every evening from 1985 onward.

As the years passed Grace became a fixture in the Parish Church of St. Helena, where her volunteer efforts were legendary. Sundays well into her nineties she sat on a bench in the narthex and gave attendees the church bulletin for the service with a genuine smile and a bright hello in her unforgettable flat-accented loud bass voice.

A memorial service at St. Helena’s at 11:00 a.m. this past Friday, June 4, brought Grace’s friends together again to say goodbye, as she wished, through recitation of the burial ritual of the great 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and singing of the great John Newton hymn, “Amazing Grace”. Also, according to her wish, her ashes will be spread in three places of her choice: at the gravesite of her parents in Beaufort National Cemetery, in the waters of Battery Creek, and in her plot at St. Helena’s cemetery.

Order of Burial, 1928 Book of Common Prayer

“Amazing Grace” by John Newton

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Comments


2 Responses to “In memoriam: Grace White, centenarian, 1910-2010”

  1. Barbie Quinlan says:

    Miss Grace was a part of our family and we will miss her. We loved her and her stories very much. She was a very special lady. God Bless you Miss Grace.

  2. tom brasher says:

    She truly was “Amazing Grace”. I met her in a group of friends who gathered regularly in Beaufort, and had the pleasure of occasionally driving her to her home. While we never had the two hour discussions, I did enjoy the few minutes each time I was with her. May she rest in peace.

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