Vennie Eline White already knew what an interesting, intelligent man her brother was.
It wasn’t until Joe White died last Sunday and she came to Billings to help with his funeral arrangements that she discovered how lucky Joe was to have passed his last years in Billings.
“The most amazing part to me is the remarkable community of people who became his family in Billings,” said Vennie, who lives in New Mexico. If her brother had lived anywhere but Billings, she said, “he probably would have died much sooner, or been incarcerated, or institutionalized.”
Joe White, 71, was a familiar figure to anyone who attended meetings of the Billings City Council or the Yellowstone County Commission in the past five or six years.
Tall and rail thin, with a shock of gray hair and thick glasses, wearing buckle-up rubber boots much of the year, he would go to almost every meeting. He would sit there looking very serious, audibly mumbling to himself and getting up two or three times to testify on various matters.
Sometimes he was incoherent, warning darkly of a huge lawsuit he was planning to bring against the government or local officials, or rambling on about the poison air in Billings.
Sometimes he made perfect sense — more than some of the elected officials he was addressing — and he often made pleas to hire more social workers and public health workers.
A busy life
But there was more to Joe, much more. The Rev. Nan Sollo, pastor of the Community Congregational Church in Absarokee, said he was one of the busiest people she knew.
In addition to the council and commission meetings, there were gatherings of other boards and commissions he felt compelled to attend occasionally, always with something to say.
He went to four or five churches in the Billings area, to a different one each week, and he always showed up freshly shaved and in clean clothes. He drove to Hutterite colonies to buy eggs because he thought the eggs in Billings were poison.
He was also a voluminous writer of cards and letters, and of documents that he would submit to local government offices. When the weather was nice, he would spend his evenings at campgrounds and fishing accesses outside Billings, sleeping in his old Dodge Caravan.
He often went to farm auctions and other sales, where he generally bought cheap “box lots.” He gave away some of his finds, but the rest of the treasures made their way into the Caravan, and then into the six storage units he had filled up before his death.
What really occupied his time was taking care of his “angel babies.” Most of them were infants whose death notices he’d seen in The Gazette. Joe said they came to him as angels, and he’d adopt them.
To anyone else, these babies looked like stuffed animals wrapped in rags. Sollo said that when Joe came to worship in Absarokee, he might make eight or 10 trips between his van and the church nursery, making sure all his “children” could attend the service.
A needed talk
When Dimbo, the oldest child, turned 18, Joe prevailed on Sollo to take her to the doctor for a talk about the birds and the bees. He was too embarrassed to do that himself.
Niki Esman knew Joe’s children, too. She is the assistant manager at the Big 5 Motel on Fourth Avenue North, where Joe used to live full-time until he acquired the Caravan three years ago and could get out of town. After that, the Big 5 was still home base.
Esman said Joe would ask her to take care of his babies when he knew he’d be gone for a few days. Room 112 was reserved for Joe, Esman said, and “all my girls” — the Big 5 maids — “loved him.”
“As soon as you met him you were in love with him,” she said. “There was no way not to be. He was just such a sweetheart.”
Joe’s parents were both natives of Wyoming. His father, Bob White, was a newspaperman who later went to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He spent his last years with the BIA in Billings and retired here.
Joe, one of seven children, got a journalism degree from Colorado State University and a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Colorado. He served in the Army in the 1960s and worked for newspapers in Colorado and California. When he wasn’t writing for work he was composing long, illustrated letters to his friends and family members.
When he was in his 20s, he began exhibiting the symptoms of delusional schizophrenia that would eventually dominate his life. In recent years, so tall and skinny and dressed in worn-out clothes, always talking to himself, he seemed a caricature of a disturbed street person.
But as his sister discovered, many people watched out for Joe and took care of him as much as he would allow.
For their part, his siblings put money in a trust for Joe so that he could continue to live on his own.
Sollo said Joe rarely went to the doctor, and though he had a mental health case worker, he didn’t want to talk about his illness. Instead, he and the case worker read poetry to each other.
Duane Winslow, who used to be the county’s elections administrator, said Joe would come in on occasion and ask him to notify registered voters in Colorado that he was living in Montana but planned to return there one day. Winslow didn’t understand, but he assured Joe he’d take care of it.
Joe’s sister Vennie may have cleared the matter up when she said Joe once ran for governor of Colorado. Before and after his schizophrenia, she said, he was passionately involved in politics and advocacy, especially of causes involving Native Americans, something he inherited from his father.
Last Sunday morning, Joe drove up to the Congregational Church in Absarokee, but at first he was too weak even to get out of his van. When he finally tried, he collapsed on the sidewalk.
Sollo called an ambulance and then got a pillow so Joe could lay his head in her lap. His last request was that she promise to take care of his angel babies. She said she would, and she told him she loved him.
That’s all he wanted to hear.
“I’m going home now,” he said. “I’m going home to live with God and with Jesus.”
A few minutes later, still in Sollo’s arms, Joe died.
A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. on July 6 at First Baptist Church, 218 N. 34th St., which Joe also attended regularly.
“He was not alone,” Sollo said. “He had people that took care of him, and I hope they come and honor his life.”