For most of his long life, Earl White was a blues musician, a teller of tales and a mate on countless skipjacks and schooners.
When this quintessential Chesapeake Bay waterman died Monday of lung cancer, he was still all those things -- musician, storyteller, waterman -- but in his quiet, understated way, he also had become a compelling teacher, an environmentalist and, as proclaimed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) in 1998, an admiral of the Chesapeake Bay.
White, called "Black Pearl of the Chesapeake," was 85 when he died at his home in Quantico, Md. Since 1991, he had been working for the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation as an educator and skipjack mate.
The nonprofit foundation, started in 1967, is the largest conservation organization dedicated to saving the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Since 1975, about 600,000 children have taken part in its environmental education programs.
Earl Clinton White, the eldest of 17 children, was born a stone's throw from the water, in a tiny community called Dames Quarter -- originally Dam Quarter -- on Deal Island, on the marshy, low-lying banks of Maryland's lower Eastern Shore.
The son and grandson of watermen, he first took to the water with his father at age 13, but, as he once told Don Baugh, the foundation's vice president for environmental education, he didn't go back out on the bay until he was 19 because his mother was worried about how rough, cold and dangerous the work was. Meanwhile, he picked strawberries and tomatoes on Eastern Shore truck farms, and he played his music.
He got his first guitar at age 10 -- actually a rubber band-strung cigar box -- and an uncle taught him to play the blues tunes that were as much a part of his life as the bay waters that sustained him. He recalled how, when he was a youngster, the uncle would painfully rap him across the knuckles when he stumbled over a new chord. The tough-love method must have worked, however. Soon he was playing at bars and juke joints in Salisbury, Princess Anne and Annapolis.
White had a few years of formal schooling in Princess Anne, but his real education came from reading the weather, the water and the colorful cast of characters who made their living off the sea's bounty in the early decades of the 20th century.
For nearly six decades of that century -- every year, except for a time during World War II when he was a steward in the Navy -- he was on the water harvesting oysters. During the cold winter months of the Chesapeake Bay season (November to March), he toiled as a mate on skipjacks, wooden boats designed to harvest oysters while under sail; during the summer, he was on Delaware Bay schooners, operating out of Port Norris, N.J.
He fished on countless boats over the years, including the Ralph T. Webster, the Stanley Norman, the Dottie Mae, the Thomas Clyde and the Rebecca T. Ruark. When the season was done, he headed back home to Deal Island.
"Unless you have kneeled next to a pile of oysters ready to be culled, on an icy deck in the rough Chesapeake winter, you can never know the life that Earl led," Baugh wrote when White died.
Not only was the work grueling and dangerous -- for maybe $12 a week back in the 1930s -- but Mother Nature could make an oysterman's life harrowing, as well.
On a summer day in 1954, he was on the schooner Merwald at the mouth of Delaware Bay when Hurricane Hazel hit. The big boat was heavy with oysters, and as the raging Atlantic waves washed across the deck, crew members could only watch as their day's catch washed overboard -- watch and hope they weren't about to follow.
White survived that storm and countless others, but several members of the White family weren't so lucky some years later. They perished during a storm in 1976, when the last African American-owned-and-operated skipjack sank in Hooper Strait.
White retired in 1989, but he was still living on the Annapolis-based skipjack Stanley Norman when it was purchased by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as a teaching tool. The foundation, to its surprise, got not only the venerable boat, built in 1902, but the venerable waterman as well.
With his stories and music, his vast store of bay knowledge and experience and his calm, effective way with children, White soon became an invaluable asset to the foundation -- "the focus of the program," in the words of Baugh. "He was a quiet man who became a folk hero."
Paul Bayne, manager of the foundation's skipjack program, recalled that Earl White stories always began the same way: "What I'm about to tell is not something I read about or heard about. It's something I experienced in my life."
No one doubted that he had.
White worked on the Stanley Norman until June of this year, when he went into the hospital. Baugh said that in the 13 years he has been with the foundation, about 40,000 people on nearly 2,000 skipjack cruises got to hear White tell his stories about life as it used to be on the Chesapeake Bay.
White's first wife, Lillian Jackson of Wilmington, Del., died in the mid-1980s.
Survivors include his wife of 20 years, Orsula White of Quantico; two stepchildren, Diane Church of Quantico and Regina Lawrence of Salisbury; two brothers, Claude White and Ralph White, both of Princess Anne; and two sisters, Emma Lewis of Wilmington and Bertina Jackson of Quantico.