Hobby helped Tecumseh couple cope while caring for a son in 25-year coma
Resiliency is defined as the ability to recover from misfortune or change. No one knows how they are able to go on when bad things happen, but for Tecumseh transplants, John and Margaret White, carving played a large role in their ability to be resilient and cope with what had to be done after their son, David, was hit by a car and seriously injured. He remained in a coma for 25 years.
“David was just 17 years old when it happened,” said John. “We added a room onto our house in Northville and Margaret took care of him for 25 years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And you know, he never had a bedsore.” David passed away in 2005.
John said he doesn’t know how he would have survived the days following the tragedy, and later, his son’s death, if he hadn’t learned to carve.
“The carving really helped, and took my mind off what had happened,” he said.
John had done some woodworking before, and was a home-builder for a time. He’d also served as a manager for Massey-Ferguson Tractor Transmission for many years, and worked as a blacksmith as well.
“I’ve done a lot of things,” he said.
One day, Margaret asked him to carve her a duck.
“I didn’t know how to carve a duck, but I found a plan and block of wood and carved her a duck,” he said. “Then she wanted a goose.”
While visiting Frankenmuth one time, the couple noticed a carving shop in the village.
“I signed up for a class that I saw they were giving, and that’s all she wrote,” he said. “I started carving and I couldn’t stop. I really got involved in it.”
The couple moved to Tecumseh two years ago after visiting and sampling the city’s restaurants and shops. They were ready to downsize and fell in love with Tecumseh’s quiet charm.
John has carved wooden fish on a string, and he’s carved the Pied Piper in the German style.
“The Germans taught me that you should leave the carving in its natural state so people know it’s a wood carving,” he said. “But I couldn’t do that with everything I carved.” For example, he has colorful Pinnochio and Jiminy Cricket pieces displayed on a dresser. “I had to paint those,” he said. In another room is a white carousel horse.
Two pieces that please him are a Crucifixion piece and “Cigar Store Indian.” The rendering of Christ on the cross shows keen attention to detail, from the ribs to the fingers and fingernails, and from the spikes to the toes. “These are probably some of my best work,” John said.
The “Cigar Store Indian” is something he said he had a mind to carve since he was young, before he even knew how.
“Hank Williams had that old song, ‘Kaw-Liga,’” he said. I liked that song and the story, and I always wanted to carve one. Williams recorded the song in 1952, and it was released posthumously in 1953 and immediately hit No. 1. It was a tale of a cigar store indian that was pining for his love, an Indian maiden in the antique store, but finds himself “wishing he was still an old pine tree,” after the object of his affection was sold.
The carving is special to John for a couple of reasons. It was after David passed away that John found himself absorbed in the project, and it turned out to be the last major project he took on before macular degeneration halted his carving career.
“Working on that after David’s death just helped keep my mind off what happened,” he said. Margaret said he worked on the project for more than a year.
The carving is made of 39 slabs of wood that John milled and glued together.
“That piece stood maybe seven-foot tall and weighed 460 pounds when I started it,” he said. “It took a lot of work, but I just stayed on it.” He never used power tools but used chisel tools and wooden mallets of varying weights that he turned on a lathe himself.
He and Margaret explained that what looks like feathers in the headdress on the carving is actually tobacco leaves. Margaret was able to help provide details on that because she had relatives in Canada who owned a tobacco farm.
“We looked all over to find the right paint to get the colors like he wanted them,” she said.
The Whites also have carvings in John’s study of Sister Seton, from Providence, who came to Detroit in the 1600s to feed the poor. He said he works from photographs and a second Native American carving sits on a shelf in there that was taken of a Utah Native American.
“I stained that with Hills Brother’s coffee grounds,” he said. It was a stain that John came up with himself, something he wanted to try. “I get crazy ideas like that sometimes.” Also in that room is a carving of a bust of David. “I used the last photograph taken of him for that,” he said.
John uses a variety of woods, from red oak, which was used for a commissioned mantelpiece, to basswood, which he used to carve Nativity pieces of Joseph, Mary, the Christ Child, a cow and a donkey. “Jesus came out right the first time, but it took me three tries to get Mary right,” he said.
The couple believes that what John has been able to do with the carvings is a combination of talent and ability and training through the classes he took, but he never felt comfortable selling his pieces, and in fact, has rarely talked about how his hobby helped save him through some dark times.
“If it wasn’t for the carving, I don’t know what I would have done,” he said. “I started it and it helped my mental well-being through all that.”
Margaret said the years were difficult as they took care of their son, but they did so with care and love. John’s hobby just helped both of them cope through the experience of doing what parents do for their children, even when tragedy strikes.
“It’s part of life,” said John. “You bring them into the world, and you take care of them.”