Earl White never embellished his stories, no matter how many times he recounted his work adventures in a deep, gruff voice that resembled John Wayne’s.
There was no reason to, really.
His tales of being trapped atop the 1950 Tacoma Narrows bridge during an overnight storm, jumping through a window when an earthquake shook his scaffolding and watching a buddy plunge to his death were riveting enough.
“His stories held up from the time I was a child to a week ago,” said his eldest son, 57-year-old Dan White. “They were always the same, they never changed. He’s just done a lot of things.”
The longtime ironworker, who spent two winters helping build the second Narrows bridge, died Sept. 30 at Tacoma General Hospital from complications of a stroke. He was 89.
White was a sturdy man, standing tall at 6 feet 2. He couldn’t enter a room with at least a few people stopping to stare.
He was born in Montana but moved to Puyallup as a child after his father lost their wheat farm because of drought.
White worked in shipyards after graduating from high school and soon learned that a draft notice was on its way. World War II was raging and the U.S. Navy wanted him to come work in its shipyard.
In a moment of defiance, White enlisted with the Marine Corps.
But those aren’t the stories he liked to tell his two sons as they were growing up.
White preferred to recount the time that blustery winds over 100 miles per hour forced him to seek shelter in a makeshift shack suspended between the bridge’s catwalks. The shack bounced around like a yo-yo as metal sheets were torn off its sides.
“That was the longest night of my life,” White once told The News Tribune.
Then there was the time he watched a close friend, Whitey Davis, lose his footing on the bridge and fall to the waters below. White thought he saw his friend move slightly in the water, then watched the incoming tide carried the body away.
Although White received the most media and public attention for his contributions to the Narrows bridge, he worked on hundreds of other projects.
He put up radar towers on the border of Montana before his sons were adopted. He coaxed his wife into filming a home video when he worked on the Yakima bridge (the film shows the crew briefly losing control of a crane as it rolls downhill). White shattered his heel after falling off a building in Seattle and was off work nearly two years, but still managed to work on his patio at home.
While standing on scaffolding outside the telephone building in downtown Tacoma, a temblor struck. White dived for safety through a window.
He decided to retire after 42 years as an ironworker, but he never lost interest. He was a regular visitor when the latest Narrows bridge was going up, even getting a personal tour at the top of the 507-foot span.
He scoffed when crew members handed him a harness. White may have been 85 at the time, but he’d spent an entire career without safety features.
After retirement, White continued his travels to Asia, Europe and South America and spent long hours relaxing in his backyard watching birds.
“My dad was a good man all the way around,” said Randy White. “He was a hard worker, taught his boys to treat people right and do the right thing in life.”
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653