Roderick White honored as Old Lyme's Citizen of the Year

Roderick White in his Old Lyme home on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018.  White designed the bow of the first commercial vessel to cross the Northwest Passage and served the community on boards and commissions and in the U.S. Coast Guard is the town's 2017 'Citizen of the Year.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Roderick White in his Old Lyme home on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. White designed the bow of the first commercial vessel to cross the Northwest Passage and served the community on boards and commissions and in the U.S. Coast Guard is the town's 2017 "Citizen of the Year. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Old Lyme — A town resident who designed the bow of the first commercial vessel to cross the Northwest Passage and served the community on boards and commissions and in the U.S. Coast Guard is the town's 2017 "Citizen of the Year."

Roderick M. White "has set a high standard for service in our town," over his more than 50 years in Old Lyme, and his name is "synonymous with service in our town," according to a proclamation from the Board of Selectmen.

In a recent interview, Capt. White recalled how one day, more than 50 years ago, he stood in the cold in the Antarctic and tried to figure out why the bow of an ice breaker crushed ice at the angle it did. White, a 1950 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy who served on expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, contemplated whether the angle should be more or less.

That sparked White's idea of changing the degree of the bow, so it would slide up on the ice and press downward, which would become the subject of his doctoral dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

When Exxon Mobil — Humble Oil at the time — was trying to reconfigure an oil tanker to cross the Northwest Passage, the company called on White, a faculty member at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, for assistance. 

The vessel, the SS Manhattan, featured the bow designed by White.

As the 1969 trip to cross the Northwest Passage generated publicity across the United States, newspaper reporters contacted MIT and asked what to call the new design, White said. MIT phoned him to ask if it should be called the "MIT Bow" or the "White Bow."

White immediately replied: "If it makes it, it's the 'White Bow.' If it doesn't, it's the 'MIT Bow,'" he recalled, chuckling.

It indeed made it. The SS Manhattan made its way into New York with a parade of other ships, he said.

In 1969, the American Society of Naval Engineers gave White the Gold Medal, noting in a citation that his MIT dissertation led "White to the revolutionary concept of the "White Bow," a long concave bow approaching the ice at a lower and more effective angle than the conventional 30-degree bow." The citation noted White's "invaluable contributions" to a new Coast Guard icebreaker and his work on the SS Manhattan.

"... in 1969 the SS MANHATTAN made its mark in history and gained worldwide recognition of the 'White Bow' with the first successful transit of the Northwest Passage by a commercial vessel," the citation states.

White went on to become dean of academics of the U.S. Coast Guard from 1974 to 1983 and later executive director of the Coast Guard Foundation.

A resident of Old Lyme since he was assigned to teach at the Coast Guard Academy, White has served on many boards and commissions in the community and is a member of the town's Board of Assessment Appeals.

White served as the town's Registrar of Voters from 1993 to 2004, was a member of the Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education from 1997 to 2005, a member of the Republican Town Committee, and a member of Rotary, the proclamation states.

White was one of the founding members of the Harbor Management Commission in Old Lyme, among the first towns in the area to create a commission. He also helped bring a new electronic system to the town's registrar of voters office. 

His wife, Judy, said it's innate in him to reach out to the community and to other people to help them. Judy recalled how when he was recently recovering from an injury at Essex Meadows, he rushed to help a lady, who was wheelchair-bound, when her personal alarm went off, even though he himself was in a wheelchair.

First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said the Board of Selectmen, which announced the honor at a Jan. 22 town meeting, chose White as "Citizen of the Year" for his commitment to the community, awareness of what's going on, and willingness to serve.

"He's just the kind of active citizen that towns are always happy to have in their community, because it's really how things get done," she said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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