Joe White:
Chatham's Beloved Lantern Lighter Remembered

By Tim Davis, Editor, from The Star-Tribune, Chatham, Virginia, November 19, 2003. Used with permission.

Joe White

Joe White, who died last week, is best remembered for lighting Chatham's Christmas lanterns along Main Street. He was 66.

If the meek inherit the earth, then Chatham's Joe White must have a mansion in heaven.

White, perhaps best remembered for lighting lanterns along Main Street every Christmas, died last week following a brief battle with cancer. He was 66.

A member of the town's street crew for 31 years, White often could be seen picking up brush and leaves, mowing grass, helping repair water and sewer lines, and doing any of a dozen other odd jobs.

To every one he was simply “Joe.”

Bob Hanson, the town's public works director, spoke at Joe's funeral Saturday at Miller Funeral Home in Gretna. Hanson said he hoped God has something for Joe to do in heaven, because “Joe sure wouldn't be happy if he wasn't working.”

Joe, once described as a “hidden treasure,” was a true godsend to the local beautification committee, planting flowers, pulling weeds, and just generally lending a helping hand.

“Joe was a perfect gentleman — courteous, honest, and honorable,” said Frances Hurt, a long-time member of Chatham Beautification Committee.

“His passing is a very big loss to Chatham.”

Joe was best known, however, for the tireless hours he spent every Christmas keeping the town's lanterns lighted along Main Street.

From early December through New Year's, Joe could be found pushing his wheelbarrow laden with a small stepladder and kerosene can up one side of Main Street and down the other.

He'd stop at each lantern, carefully polish the globe, trim the wick, refill it with kerosene, light it, and make sure it was burning bright before moving on to the next one.

He did this without fail for at least 20 years — often in the freezing rain, sleet, or snow.

“I don't think anybody can look at those Christmas lanterns and not think of Joe. He was such a part of Christmas,” said Mayor Elton Pruitt.

There were plans this year to honor Joe for his dedication to the town's unique holiday tradition, according to Vice Mayor Bill Black.

Organizers had hoped to light two lanterns this year to begin the holiday season, with Joe joining Buddy Overbey in the ceremony in front of the courthouse.

Black said the committee plans to remember Joe during this year's lantern-lighting ceremony, which will be held on Friday, December 5.

“We want to do something to honor him for all that he has done,” Black said.

Pruitt said that, although the town will eventually hire someone to take Joe's place, no one will ever be able to replace him.

“I think we've lost one of the finest gentlemen in the town,” the mayor said. “Not only was he a very valuable employee, but also a very valued friend. He didn't do a whole lot of talking in words, but Joe spoke volumes in his actions.”

Streetside Memorial to Joe White

Joe White was remembered on Main Street in Chatham this week with a memorial lantern, photo and flowers. (Photo by Susan Worley, Star-Tribune.)

Kitty Miller, the town's long-time clerk and treasurer, agreed.

“He was extremely dependable. He was quiet and gentle,” said Miller, who recently retired and now works part time for the town. “He loved Chatham. The thing that impressed me was he felt like the town was his responsibility.”

In addition to his work with the town, Joe was an excellent handyman and did a variety of jobs for people around Chatham. Whenever someone needed something done, they called Joe.

“He could never say no. He was just a giving person all of his life,” said Reba Motley.

Motley's late husband, Blair Motley, Jr., hired Joe when he was 18 to work at the family's fertilizer business in Chatham and Joe became a life-long friend.

“He was such a southern gentleman, so meek and mild. It was a pleasure to have known him,” Motley said. “I feel like I've lost a member of my family.”

Joe was married once and has two stepdaughters but no children of his own.

Few people, even those close to him, knew how sick he was in the final weeks of his life.

“He died exactly the way he lived,” said Motley. “He didn't want to be any trouble.”

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