Duquesne University archivist honored for his love of folklore
July 17, 2014 11:43 AM
By Kathleen Ganster
Tom White fell in love with the movie “The Raiders of the Lost Ark” when he saw it as a boy.
“I looked at Harrison Ford and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up,’ ” he said.
While Mr. White might not have a role as glamorous as the one played by Mr. Ford, he did grow up to explore legends and folklores. The West View resident serves as an archivist and curator at Duquesne University and, in his spare time, researches “unexplained and unanswered things.”
The author of eight books about local history, legends and myths, Mr. White recently was selected by the American Association for State and Local History for a Leadership in History Award. He received an Award of Merit for his book, Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History and Lore.
The book, published in 2013, explores the local history and lore of witchcraft and the occult. Mr. White used oral history accounts and archival information to write the book.
Mr. White fell in love with history at an early age, thanks to not only the above mentioned movie, but his late mother’s love of history and anthropology. As a boy growing up in Ross, Mr. White said his mother, Jean, often had books about the subjects through-out their house, which sparked his interest.
“I started majoring in history at La Roche College and had an excellent professor who really encouraged me,” Mr. White said.
That professor, Ed Brett, was an expert in mid-evil history and history of religion, and sparked his young student to create his own independent study projects. That was the beginning of Mr. White’s passion for research.
It also helped that his work-study job at the college was working as an archivist.
“I’ve been working in history since I was 18,” said Mr. White, who is now 39 years old.
Mr. White loved his research and thought he would follow the career path of his mentor.
“At the time, I thought I would go straight through and get my Ph.D. and teach, but then I discovered the master’s at Duquesne where I could focus on public history and look at social history in general. That swayed me,” he said.
Mr. White worked at the Heinz History Center as an archivist for six years and worked in a records management department at a private company before his role at Duquesne.
While researching, Mr. White said he often collects interesting facts that he finds, even if it doesn’t pertain to the subject at hand.
“If I see a fact or story that might come in handy for a future book or project, I save it. I have files and files at home on various topics,” he said.
Mr. White’s books have mostly focused on legends, folklore and history of Pennsylvania he said, including Forgotten Tales of Pittsburgh, Forgotten Tales of Philadelphia and Forgotten Tales of Pennsylvania.
His brother, Ed White, a lawyer in Philadelphia, helped him research and co-authored the book about Philadelphia.
Mr. White served as editor and wrote a couple of sections for a new book, Supernatural Lore of Pennsylvania: Ghosts, Monsters and Miracles (History Press: $19.99), a collection of stories about various legends.
“Each section is written by someone who is an expert in that area and tells a different story. We had a section by a local genealogist, a minister, local historians – it is a great book,” he said.
The AASLH Leadership in History Award honors significant achievement in the field of state and local history and to bring public recognition to the individuals and programs making contributions to history. Mr. White will receive his award in September.
Mr. White and his wife, Justina, have two children, Tom, 12, and Marisa, 9.
“So far, they are interested in history. Let’s hope it lasts,” he said of his children.
THOMAS “TOM” WHITE KFISH
Hometown: West View
Occupation: Archivist and curator at Duquesne University; adjunct professor at Duquesne and La Roche College
Family: Wife, Justina; son, Tom, 12; daughter, Marisa, 9
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history, La Roche; master’s in public history, Duquesne
Hobbies: Camping and other outdoor activities, reading and researching folklore and legends
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