History Book: Legend of Tarzan White

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Tiny Jamestown’s most famous resident was a star football player, champion wrestler, scholar and colorful mailman.

By LARUE HARDINGER

It takes a special man to shoulder both a christened name honoring a World War I hero and a nickname depicting an iconic adventurer of the wild.

But Arthur Pershing “Tarzan” White’s real-world accomplishments, coupled with a little folklore, made him exceptionally worthy of both. His resume included college and pro football star, world-champion wrestler, military officer and scholar. Whatever White set his mind to do, he did it well. He was a tough-as-nails competitor, yet sported a gentle side that endeared him to all who crossed his path.

His story begins in southwest Alabama, spreads around the world and ends in the extreme northeast corner of the state – his home for more than half of his of life. Maybe it’s in error to say the story ends here in the shades of Lookout Mountain because legends don’t die. [s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Travel north on Jamestown Road in Cherokee County, Alabama, to the rural community of Jamestown, just a short distance from Menlo, Ga., and you’ll find a historical marker dedicated to White, who ironically later served as a simple – yet colorful – postal carrier in these parts for many years.

White entered this world on Dec. 6, 1915, in Lockhart, Ala., in Covington County – one of four children born to railroad man and farmer Justus Arthur White and Tessie Mae Perkins, an elementary-school teacher.

White’s parents gave him the middle name of Pershing as a nod to U.S. Army Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Forces to victory over Germany in WWI, says David Hartline of Gaylesville, Ala.

Hartline is authoring a biography, “The Real Tarzan,” about the man he idolized as a youth in rural Jamestown, where he worked a Grit newspaper bicycle route that took him to the local Clyde Miller mercantile, which doubled as the post office.

“We met at that post office,” recalls Hartline. “Tarzan kept remarking about the stamina it took for me to ride that route. He said it was ‘perfect exercise.’ He took such an interest in young people. He wanted to see them do really well.”

White was called “Tarzan” by classmates from the age of 7 – most likely from his propensity to climb trees in his claimed hometown of rural Atmore, Ala., in Escambia County.

At age 10, despite his parents’ protests, White randomly hopped an L & N freight train, both for fun and for profit. For years he was a summer hobo exploring places like Louisville, Seattle and Yellowstone. He first wrestled in a carnival ring in Texas at age 15. White found summer work, harvesting wheat in North Dakota, making $10 a day with board. An Alabama farmhand’s pay was closer to $20 a month.

By age 13, White was 5-feet-9-inches and 217 pounds of muscle. His strength, agility and fighting spirit propelled him to heroic status. That year he scored all 40 points for his Tigers team during his very first Escambia County High School football game. In 1929, at age 14, he was named All-State at ECHS.

At 15, White hopped a train to California – determined to see Alabama play Washington in the Rose Bowl. He approached the Pasadena hotel housing the Crimson Tide team and asked to see University of Alabama President George Denney. He assured Denney that one day he would be playing Alabama football – to which Denny responded by giving White dinner and a game ticket, Hartline says.

Alabama offered White a scholarship halfway through his senior year at Escambia High. White wasted no time. He passed his college entrance exam and entered the university in January 1933. He played his first game with Alabama at barely 17 years old and without finishing high school – not an uncommon practice in the Depression, when getting into college was one’s ticket out of poverty.

Playing alongside the indomitable Paul “Bear” Bryant and Don Hutson, White was a member of the 1934 National Championship team and was honored as an All-American guard in 1936. Bryant graduated in 1935 and became White’s guard coach in 1936.

Even during White’s glory days at Alabama, he hoboed between football seasons – yet his career at the Capstone blossomed as he later earned inclusion on Alabama’s All-Time Team and the Southeastern Conference’s All-Time Team.

A mathematical whiz and self-proclaimed speed reader, White excelled academically at Alabama, and in 1936 graduated with a degree in education and was a member of Phi Delta Kappa, a professional organization for educators.

The New York Giants drafted White in the second round with the 14th overall pick of the 1937 pro football draft. He was named All-NFL rookie and an All-Pro the next year as the Giants won the NFL championship in 1938.

White was an intellectual athlete – many people claim he was fluent in Spanish and able to solve complicated math problems in his head – and exceptionally perceptive. Which begs the question: Did he earn a PhD from Columbia University in New York during his stint with the Giants as numerous creditable newspapers reported throughout his life?

No, says White, as quoted in the book “They Wore Crimson” by sportswriter and author Clyde Bolton. The story of White earning a doctorate at Columbia University “got started when I was listening in on some of the classes and playing ball with the Giants, but I never finished it up,” White told Bolton. “I was too busy going from one place to another, wrestling.”

In January 1939, the Giants met the NFL All-Stars in the first Pro-Bowl in Los Angeles. After his team’s win, White visited the Olympic Auditorium and dared wrestling promoters to pair him up with anyone they wished. He was pitted against Sockeye Jack McDonald, whom White took down with a single flying tackle in 22 seconds. Retired wrestling champ Strangler Lewis became White’s manager.

White mixed his Giants career with professional wrestling because fighting paid $150 a match. He could wrestle several nights a week and make more than football paid. But White’s love of football ran deep, and he stayed with the Giants until he was traded to the Chicago Cardinals. Again, his determination and drive won him the new title of All-Pro in 1941.

After the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, White enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he earned the rank of lieutenant while continuing his football career – playing from 1942 to 1945 with the Army all-star football team under Gen. Bob Neyland, the future University of Tennessee Hall-of- Fame coach.

After three seasons with the Giants, two years with the Cardinals and three years in the U.S. Army Air Corps, White returned for one last season with the Giants in 1945. During the final Giants game, White suffered a spinal fracture. Ten days later, he left the hospital – against doctor’s orders – to wrestle in Atlanta and never looked back.

There was a problem, however, when White heard MGM Studios frowned on his using the name ”Tarzan.” (Actor Johnny Weissmuller played ‘Tarzan’ in MGM -produced movies.) White visited Edgar Rice Burroughs of California who authored the books on which the Tarzan flicks were based. In the end, White gained Burroughs’ permission to keep using the only name he really ever knew.

For three decades, a deeply-tanned, hairy and shirtless White fought 594 professional wrestling matches, thrice winning the world heavyweight championship belt – beating Jimmy Landos in 1939; the 350-pound Volga Boatman of Russia in 1947; and the sport’s all-time king, Lou Thesz, in 1949. He continued to wrestle until he was nearly 60 years old.

The legend of Tarzan White includes neighborhood kids’ tales of watching White train and toughen himself up – by rolling off the tin roof of his lean-to shed – and by ducking his head into a charging stance before bolting through the bamboo field bordering his front yard.

Wrestling was all the rage during the 1960s, and Hartline tells of times he and Butch (White’s son and Hartline’s childhood friend) traveled in White’s Cadillac to area matches held in high school gymnasiums and National Guard armories just for the love of it. “People would go crazy,” Hartline says. “There would be 500 people show up. Tarzan would pull grown people out of the audience to wrestle – he was a salesman and an entertainer.

“Here was this big, burly guy – short but stocky – and you could see every muscle. He could have been a ferocious type guy; but I’d say he was the roughest, toughest guy with the best demeanor I ever saw.”

Hartline says White’s wife Sara of 58 years “called him ‘Tarz’, and he called her ‘Kitty.’” The couple met at the University of Alabama, had two children (Richard “Butch” and Joan) and resided at their humble, screened-porch, rambling house on a dead-end Jamestown ‘pig trail,’ as the locals say, for nearly 50 years. Butch followed in his dad’s footsteps at Fort Payne High School, where he was on the Wildcat wrestling and football teams.

In 1954, White coached Gaylesville High School’s football team and taught math. But his coaching record wasn’t exceptional and, sadly, the school burned. White then accepted a coaching job at Menlo High School, forming their first football team, which in its second year won a state championship.

White later spent more than 16 years as a rural postman, still driving his oversized Cadillac, says Hartline. “When I came back from Vietnam in 1969 – here Tarzan came, driving those dirt and gravel roads like crazy, delivering mail – and sometimes he was bare-chested, wearing just flip-flops and wrestling shorts. He latched onto me like I was a celebrity, and it was a bonding for me – that camaraderie.

“Tarzan White may have driven old cars and dressed in wrestling shorts and flip-flops, but one thing he always wore was a neck chain with two bronze football pendants – one engraved “UA ” and the other “All American.”

At age 66, White was inducted on Feb. 14, 1981, into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame alongside football greats Bill Battle, Fred Davis, Monte Irvin, Fob James, Joe Namath and Pat Sullivan. By this time, his dark locks were snow white, but he was often seen by neighbors chopping wood – still shirtless and wearing shorts and flip-flops – even in winter.

Two and a half years before his death, White divulged he had a pacemaker after suffering a heart attack 17 years prior. On Jan. 23, 1996, White passed away at age 80, but his legend lives on.

“Tarzan was a great guy with personality; funny; and he loved telling stories,” says Tommy Moon of Centre, Ala., and a longtime friend of White. “Tarzan White was a phenomenal ball player – a truly amazing man.”[/s2If]