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Earl White, at 85; bluesman, waterman who loved Chesapeake Bay

WASHINGTON -- For most of his life, Earl White was a blues musician, a teller of tales, and a mate on countless skipjacks and schooners.

This quintessential Chesapeake Bay musician, storyteller, and waterman died at his home in Quantico, Md., on Aug. 9 of lung cancer. He was 85.

In his quiet, understated way, Mr. White also had become a compelling teacher, an environmentalist, and, as proclaimed by Parris N. Glendening, Maryland governor in 1998, an admiral of the Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. White, called ''Black Pearl of the Chesapeake," had been working for the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation as an educator and skipjack mate for the past decade.

The nonprofit foundation, begun 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 banks of Maryland's 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 did not go back out on the bay until he was 19, because his mother was worried about the rough, cold, and dangerous work. Meanwhile, he played his music.

He got his first guitar at age 10, 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. Soon he was playing at bars and juke joints in Annapolis.

Mr. White had a few years of formal schooling, 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.

For nearly six decades -- 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 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.

''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 Mr. White died.

Not only was the work grueling, for perhaps $12 a week in the 1930s, but nature could make an oysterman's life harrowing.

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 were not about to follow.

Mr. White survived that storm and countless others, but several members of the White family were not so lucky some years later. They perished during a storm in 1976, when the last African-American-owned skipjack sank.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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, who managed the skipjack program, recalled that Earl White stories always began the same: ''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.

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