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Faith and a Smile: La Jollan Leo White turns 100

Leo White is all smiles a few weeks before his 100th birthday April 22.
(Courtesy)

LA JOLLA CENTENARIANS: This occasional La Jolla Light series features interviews with local centenarians. If you know a La Jollan who is 100 years old, please e-mail editor@lajollalight.com or call (858) 875-5950.

“Put a smile on your face and hope for the best.” La Jolla’s newest centenarian Leo White shared his method for getting through tough times with the Light last week as his family prepared to celebrate Leo’s 100th birthday.

According to biographical information shared by his daughter Mary Beth Green, Leo White was born April 22, 1920, in St. Paul, Minn. He joined the Navy in 1942 and trained to become a pilot. He married Marjorie Brack in 1943, and after the war, Leo and Marjorie lived in St. Paul with their four children: John, Nancy, Mary Beth and Bill.

Leo worked as a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch, and when Marjorie died of acute leukemia in 1956 at age 34, Leo chose to follow a job opportunity with the company to San Diego, seeking a fresh start for himself and his four young children.

Navy pilot Leo White in 1943
(Courtesy)

He married Mary Jo Donnan in 1958, and lived on Bellevue Avenue in La Jolla for many years as three more children joined the family: Suzanne, Jeffrey and Katy. Leo worked for Merrill Lynch in its former location on Ivanhoe Avenue, while the children — from teens to toddlers — attended local Catholic schools.

As the children grew and pursued their careers, Leo and Mary Jo traveled much and Leo played tennis at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. He also cultivated his love for music and current affairs. A decade after his retirement, Leo lost Mary Jo to complications from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Many years later, Leo reconnected with a high school sweetheart, Mary Scallon Gerber, and the two were married at ages 84 and 85, and they traveled extensively and enjoyed family until Mary passed away in 2009.

Currently, Leo is still quite active. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, he attended Mass at All Hallows, played golf often with friends, and remains a devoted father to his seven children, grandfather to 16 grandchildren, and great-grandfather to 13 (with two more on the way).

His 100th birthday party had to be canceled due to the pandemic, but he was celebrated by family and friends virtually. Given the current shelter-in-place mandates, Leo marked his 100th birthday April 22 with drive-bys from friends and family, as he held court in his open garage under banner and balloons, according to his son, Bill White, a La Jolla resident and owner of The Ascot Shop on Girard Avenue.

The Light interviewed Leo for insight on coping in times of tragedy and to glean other bits of life advice.

What’s the secret to your longevity?

“I wish I could give you a good answer. I can tell you I didn’t smoke; I did a lot of exercise: a lot of tennis and golf.”

What’s the most important technological advancement of your lifetime?

“I don’t have a computer or cell phone. I never dreamed I’d live to this age, but technology has been an amazing feat as far as I’m concerned. We didn’t have what we have today 20 years ago, and I’m really impressed with the way technology is going. I just don’t have much use for it myself.”

What is a typical day for you?

“Prior to the coronavirus crisis, each day was different. I had breakfast once a week, lunch a couple of times with a few friends ... we’d also hit the golf ball. My golf game has kinda disappeared because of my age, but I still play. Also, my children keep me busy.”

(Bill noted that Leo visits The Ascot Shop daily, bringing treats or healthy snacks for the employees — many of whom are Leo’s children or grandchildren. Daughter Mary Beth added that Leo still drives himself everywhere and confirms her father is very active socially, often meeting friends at restaurants or parties.

What’s your best piece of advice for a young person?

“Be honest with yourself. Be kind to people; enjoy your life. Smile, have a good time! That’s about it.”

What’s your earliest memory?

“Probably of my mother. I had a lovely mother; she was very sweet to me. I have memories of my mother more than anything else.”

Leo is surrounded by his seven children in 2010.
(Courtesy)

How do you handle stress?

“I feel that my church has been very helpful to me. Religion has always been important. Smiling is important, too — smile even when you’re feeling sad. Do the best you can.”

How do you handle loss and grief?

“My faith has helped me a lot with things like that. I turn to the church when I have a major problem; I pray to Saint Anne, and Saint Anne has been very good to me in times of sadness.”

Do you have any regrets?

“None.”

What’s been the best decade for you?

“Those days when I was a Navy pilot were fun. I enjoyed going through flight training and flying airplanes. I flew for 15 years.”

What’s the best part of living in La Jolla?

“Being a citizen of Southern California! Couldn’t ask for anything nicer; I feel blessed, I really do.”