A Perfect Match

By Jim Tranquada

From academics to athletics to the arts, Linda and Tod White ’59 follow their passions as they enhance the Oxy experience

As a skinny, bespectacled sophomore, Tod White ’59 was part of one of the greatest performances in the history of Oxy athletics. At the 1957 L.A. Memorial Coliseum Relays, White ran the first leg of the 2-mile relay that ended in a dramatic come-from-behind, world record-setting victory over USC, UCLA, Arizona State, and Georgetown.

Not surprisingly, White—who all these years later still fits into his letterman’s jacket—has a keen appreciation for the role of athletics in a liberal arts education. “College is much more than what happens in the classroom,” says White, a hall of famer both at Oxy and at Newport Harbor High School in Orange County, where he was California state champion in the mile. Self-discipline, goal setting, perseverance, character- and confidence-building, and even time management were all important products of his Oxy experience.

But when the trustee emeritus and his wife, Linda, made their first major gift to the College in 2007, it was not directed to the track and field program or the athletics program in general. Instead, the Whites chose to endow the College’s Center for Teaching Excellence, which partners with faculty to hone teaching skills with the goal of improving the student experience. As a psychology major who founded a pioneering firm in the field now known as career management, “I was in the education business, conducting seminars for corporate clients,” Tod says. “Effective teaching has always been an interest of mine.”

Last year, the Whites made a major gift to support the community-oriented arts project that will be based in the College’s new Oxy Arts building on York Boulevard (architect's rendering, right). (Renovations on the property, located one block south of campus, are well underway, with the opening scheduled for next spring.) The Whites have a long-standing interest in the arts: Linda is a painter who earned her MFA at the University of Pennsylvania and whose works have been shown at galleries and museums on both coasts, and the couple have been executive producers of many plays at South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa and Anaheim’s Chance Theater. “All of our decisions on philanthropy are joint decisions,” Tod says. “I like how the Oxy Arts program will act as a bridge to the community.”

Nor have the Whites neglected athletics, endowing the track and field and cross country programs and helping provide funding for the ongoing renovation of the Payton Jordan Athletic Offices (honoring the famed track coach who recruited Tod to run for the Tigers) and construction of the De Mandel Aquatic Center and expanded McKinnon Family Tennis Center. It’s a history of giving that dates back more than 50 years, when the Whites wrote a check for $5 to the College as newlyweds. “Oxy was so supportive of me,” Tod explains. “It gave me a scholarship, an outstanding education, and lifelong friends.”

“The breadth and vision of Tod and Linda’s philanthropy is remarkable,” says President Jonathan Veitch. “They recognize that a liberal arts education is a multifaceted experience, one that takes place both inside and outside the classroom. Toward that end, they have supported not only athletics but the arts and teaching as well. In one way or another, directly or indirectly, their generosity has touched almost everyone on campus.” 

Tod modestly concedes that his athletic accomplishments outshone his academic performance at Oxy. “I was never on stage receiving accolades for my academic prowess,” he says. “But academics were very, very important.” He credits several of his professors for having a major impact on his life. David Cole M’48 (who taught psychology at Oxy for 37 years) “was just terrific, and very encouraging.” Approached by Tod on how best to become an industrial psychologist, psychology professor Gilbert Brighouse gave a simple answer: First, become a good psychologist. “That conversation of less than a minute was very influential, bending the twig to send a tree in the right direction, so to speak,” Tod says. A D-minus he received on a first-year English paper from associate professor Basil Busacca left a mark as well: “My final grade in the class was a B, and that convinced me I could be a better writer.”

While Tod was pursuing a master’s in psychology at Cal State Long Beach, he was introduced to Linda Goodart, a social sciences major, by Oxy track teammate Ty Hadley ’58. It didn’t take long for the two to become a couple, according to Tod. “Linda says she liked my smile and laugh. I thought she was cute and friendly—and she still is.”

Degrees in hand, Tod and Linda moved to Minneapolis, where Tod earned his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Minnesota, and then to Princeton, N.J., where he worked in research and development for Kepner-Tregoe, an industrial psychology firm. Five years later, Tod joined forces with partner Buck Blessing, a union negotiator and industrial engineer with General Motors, to found Organization Research Group in 1971.

“We developed a very good process for helping employees at any level better manage their own careers, helping them think about why they are going to work in first place; identifying their skills, strengths, and weaknesses; and how to put together a personal development plan,” Tod says. That required writing training materials to train teachers at their Fortune 500 clients who could then put on their seminars. With little competition, the company grew to become BlessingWhite, and was sold in 1989 to New York-based General Atlantic. White stayed with the company as CEO until retiring in 1992. BlessingWhite continues to thrive as a division of Columbia, Md.-based GP Strategies Corp. 

Tod’s experience in developing training materials and training teachers at BlessingWhite sparked his interest in what was happening at the College’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE). Launched in 2003 at the suggestion of then-Dean Kenyon Chan, the CTE had a modest beginning. “Initially we focused on new faculty,” recalls founding director Robby Moore, the Elbridge Amos Stuart Professor of Economics. “The idea was not so much to teach them how to be great teachers, but we knew although most of them had a lot of teaching success, they had not had formal training.” So the CTE offered practical advice: why student learning goals should be part of a class syllabus, how to elicit feedback on how a class is going, how to encourage students to fill out end-of-­semester evaluations. “It was an eye-opener for them,” he says.

Learning about the CTE and its work was also an eye-opener for Tod, who had joined the Board of Trustees in 2002. “Teaching is an important part of Oxy’s competitive advantage, and we saw a real opportunity to help the College ensure that faculty are even more effective in the classroom,” he says. After he and Linda gave $1 million to permanently endow the CTE, it was a logical step to use part of those funds to create the Linda and Tod White Teaching Prize, presented at Convocation each year. “For Oxy to celebrate teaching excellence in front of the new class sets a terrific example for students,” Tod says. “With the various gifts we’ve given, that ranks really high. Recognizing outstanding teaching—that’s very exciting.”

The Whites’ gift “was really a watershed moment,” says Moore, who stepped down as CTE director in 2012. “It allowed us to do so much more—expand our programs and increase faculty participation. We got faculty to work on their teaching together and that makes Oxy a better place. It’s an automatic way of building community. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching science or humanities, the issues are amazingly similar.” Tod has remained an active supporter of the CTE, Moore adds. “What I really like about Tod is that he’s smart, he has good ideas and makes occasional suggestions, but he doesn’t want to dictate what we do at all. He doesn’t try to micromanage in any way.”

Rob Bartlett, head coach for the track and field and cross country teams since 2007, has a similar take on the Whites’ support of athletics. The endowment they created helps pay for travel and makes it possible for him to put together more competitive meet schedules. It also supplements the equipment budget to help pay for things like new high jump and pole vault pits. “Tod cares deeply about our student-athletes’ experience,” Bartlett says. “It matters to him that we have large teams and are offering a quality experience to lots of students. He is supportive in ways that are more than just financial: He watches us compete, comes to our awards banquets each year, and often replies to my weekly email updates.”

His interests extend to the entire athletic program. “The renovation of the athletic offices is really his doing as well,” Bartlett adds. “There are very few facilities that will touch every sport, and that’s one of them. The renovation will give a better first impression to prospective students, and will make current athletes feel more special.”

Bartlett also points to the fact that the Whites established their endowment as a matching gift program as evidence of the couple’s broad interest in the College. “That shows he really cares about encouraging others to be philanthropic and supportive of Oxy,” he says. “He wants the College to thrive, and knows for that to happen it will take a lot of people supporting it financially, emotionally, and with their time. He’s a good guy—unpretentious, grounded, and humble.”

More recently, the Whites have further diversified their philanthropic efforts by supporting the nascent Oxy Arts Center. Linda, whose most recent work has been in acrylics (“People say I’m abstract but I think I’m getting more representational—I’m just a painter”), has been an important supporter of the arts at Cal State Long Beach, and the community partnerships at the heart of Oxy Arts appealed to both her and Tod. “Los Angeles has become a very strong influence in contemporary art,” says Linda. “I would like to see the center invite local artists to come in, show their work, give talks, and encourage the arts in the community as well as at Oxy. Getting my MFA was a big thing in my life, and I want to extend the opportunity to get involved in the arts to others.”

As they have done with other gifts, the Whites’ support for the Oxy Arts Center includes a matching gift component. “We particularly like to support projects that are focused on achieving clearly stated goals. We’ve found adding a matching challenge to our gifts is especially gratifying when other alumni step up to meet the challenge,” Tod explains.

That common-sense philosophy informs the Whites’ approach to giving. “Oxy isn’t financially as well off as its peers,” Tod adds. “If you can get others to help, together we can achieve results beyond what you might otherwise expect, and the College can do even better.”

That makes the Whites hall of famers by any measure.  

Photos by Kevin Burke.

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