In the next few days, I know I will want to share a few more things about my grandmother, but for now, I just wanted to share her obituary, the most challenging and most humbling thing I have ever had the honor of writing in my entire life:

“I slept and dreamed that life was happiness. I awoke and saw that life was service. I served and found that in service happiness is found.”

– Rabindranath Tagore

Prominent Louisiana humanitarian, philanthropist, educator, and social justice pioneer Joanne Lyles White of Alexandria died peacefully in her home, surrounded by her family, on March 9, 2011.

Mrs. White was a dedicated and loving wife, mother and grandmother; a tenacious and passionate advocate for the poor, the dispossessed, single mothers, orphaned children, and the disabled; and an active leader in the United Methodist Church on the local, district, and conference levels.

Mrs. White was first inspired to service and charity as a young girl, after reading Pearl Buck’s accounts of peasant life in rural China. She gave her time, talent, and energy unselfishly and exhaustively because she felt compelled by her deep faith in Christ.

Mrs. White was a founding member of the Shepherd Center, a founder and first President of the Louisiana High School Speech League and Tournament of Champions, a founding member of Hope House, Christmas Cheer for Children, the Care for Share Tutoring Program, Angel Care, the Wally White Lecture Series, Rapides Parish Chapter of the Habitat for Humanity, past President of the Louisiana Speech Association, an Executive Committeewoman of the Job Training Partnership Act State Council, the Chair of the State Committee on Illiteracy and Education, the Chair of the Rapides Parish Workforce Investment Board, and a founding member of the Central Louisiana Food Bank.

Mrs. White was pleased when the Hope House was selected by President George H.W. Bush for the 1,000 Points of Light award. Among her many honors and awards, Mrs. White was the recipient of the National Association of Social Worker’s Public Citizen of the Year Award, the Lions Club’s Outstanding Citizen Award, the Louisiana Methodist Church’s Children and Families Service Award, the Young Women’s Christian Association’s Outstanding Community Leader Award, the Zeta Phi Beta’s Outstanding Community Leadership Award, the Sojourner Truth Award, the Central Louisiana Professional Women’s Network’s Visionary Award, and Cenla Focus’s Cenla-ian of the Year.

Mrs. White’s work was also commended by the Louisiana Department of Safety and Corrections, the Louisiana Department of Education and the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Rapides Parish Police Jury, and the Alexandria Human Relations Commission.

Mrs. White worked with the Governor’s Office and the Department of Corrections, spearheading and chairing a task force that investigated disparities in the treatment of incarcerated women and juveniles.

Mrs. White also championed the creation of Aiken Optional School in Rapides Parish, and she helped create the Kuumba Center, an inner-city educational and recreational institution.

Throughout her life, Mrs. White was a leader of the United Methodist Church.  At her beloved First United Methodist Church of Alexandria, Mrs. White taught Bible Study and sang in the church choir for nearly sixty years. She was the District Lay Leader and the District Chairperson for the Committee on Missions and Church Expansion, the Committee on Special Events, and the Committee on Lay Speaking. She was also the Conference Chairperson for the Hunger Task Force and the Bishop’s Task Force for Children and Poverty. Mrs. White served as a Louisiana delegate to numerous Global United Methodist General Conferences, and she traveled throughout the world to support and contribute to Methodist charities and missionary programs.

Mrs. White graduated from Lecompte High School, and at the age of sixteen, she enrolled in Louisiana State University, earning a Bachelors of Science degree in Speech and Social Studies in 1950.

While in college, Mrs. White was a founding member and President of the LSU chapter of the Delta Gamma Sorority.

In 1999, Mrs. White earned a certification from the Summer Leadership Institute at Harvard University’s School of Divinity.

Lillian Joanne Lyles White was born on September 12, 1929 in Lecompte, Louisiana to Samuel Pickles Lyles and Marie Myrtle Guy Lyles. She was the eighth of twelve children. She and her siblings were raised on Compromise Plantation in Lloyd’s Bridge, Louisiana. Her parents were sharecroppers for many years, but eventually, they leased and operated a farm of over 800 acres.

On April 30, 1951, she married the love of her life, Paul Donald White, Sr. Together, they had six children: Paul Donald Jr., Charles Nathan II, Frederick Lamar, Paula Elizabeth, Martha Anne, and Wallace Mark.

In December of 1951, American Magazine named the Lyles family its “Family of the Month.” Although, at one point, the Lyles family operated one of the most productive cotton farms in the American South, they never owned their own home or land. Mrs. White’s parents believed the most important inheritance they could leave their children was the opportunity for a college education.

As a child, Mrs. White worked with her siblings on the family farm and was actively involved in the local 4-H club, serving as its President when she was in high school. In an era of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan, many of Mrs. White’s closest friends and playmates were the sons and daughters of African-American sharecroppers. At a very early age, Mrs. White became a champion for civil rights, a cause she publicly and vigorously supported throughout her entire life.

Mrs. White possessed a preternatural gift of language. As a teenager, she wrote a poem about her mother, which was read on a national radio program by famed broadcaster Bert Parks on Mother’s Day. As an adult, she was a frequent keynote speaker and lecturer at numerous regional and statewide conferences.

After graduating college, Mrs. White became a teacher at Bolton High School, a position she held from 1950 to 1963. She taught World History, American History, Government and Economics, and Speech, and she was particularly honored and proud to serve as the coach of Bolton High School’s Speech and Debate team. Mrs. White was instrumental in creating a statewide forensics circuit. She cherished every one of her students, and she always considered them to be an extension of her own family.

In 1978, a few years after she lost her son Wally, a toddler, Mrs. White with her husband created the Wally White Lecture Series in his honor. For nearly two decades, Mrs. White recruited some of the world’s most prominent theologians, thinkers, politicians, and writers to share their wisdom and their perspective with the people of Central Louisiana.

In 1983, she was one of the founding members the Shepherd Center, an ecumenical ministry that assists the poor and the dispossessed, by uniting twenty-nine different church congregations around a common cause: helping people in need. She not only provided the vision and the driving force for its creation, she purchased and then donated a building to house the center. As a part of her work with the Shepherd Center, Mrs. White also created the Christmas Cheer for Children program, which provided computerized cooperative aid to over 4,000 children annually.

In 1989, she was one of the founding members of the Hope House, a homeless shelter for women, mothers, and their children. Mrs. White arranged for the donation of a large, historic home on Bolton Avenue and raised both private and public funds to renovate and operate the facility. Since its creation, the Hope House has provided thousands of women and children a new beginning.

After her second grandchild, Lamar Jr., was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Mrs. White created Angel Care, an early childhood development center that paired atypical and typical infants and provided networking opportunities and resources for families with mentally or physically challenged children.

During her life, Mrs. White cared for thousands of families and championed dozens of causes and charities, but she loved and relished her thirteen grandchildren more than anything else.

Mrs. White is predeceased by two of her children, Frederick Lamar and Wallace Mark; her parents, Samuel Pickles Lyles and Marie Myrtle Guy Lyles; and six of her siblings, Charles, Sue, Sarah, Samuel Jr., Bill, and Sammy.

She is survived by her husband of fifty-nine years, Paul Donald White, Sr., and her children and their spouses: Paul Donald White, Jr. and his wife Kathy of Alexandria; Charles Nathan White II and his wife K.K. of Alexandria, Carol Rhodes White (widow of her son Frederick Lamar) of Dallas, Texas; Paula Elizabeth White Hayes and her husband Jeffrey of Dallas, Texas; and Martha Anne White Johnston and her husband Mark of Dallas, Texas.

She is survived by five of her sisters: Betty, Manie, Grace, Nancy, and Kitty.

She is also survived by her thirteen grandchildren: Paul Donald White, III of New Orleans and his girlfriend Jennifer Erwin; Frederick Lamar White, Jr. of Alexandria; Martha Elizabeth White Vasquez, and her husband Jeremy Vasquez of Baton Rouge; Mark Edward White and his fiancé Michelle Cuevas of Alexandria; David Lawrence White and his wife Gina McClure White, of Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Emily Marie White Corbin and her husband Scott Corbin of Dallas, Texas; Leigh Anne White of Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Allison Anne Hayes of Durham, North Carolina; Kirk Joseph Hayes of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Natalie Elizabeth Johnston, Jennifer Joanne Hayes, Samuel Mark Johnston, and Joseph Paul Johnston, all of Dallas, Texas; and a great-grandson Nathan Lawrence White.

The family asks that all memorials in honor of Joanne Lyles White be sent to the First United Methodist Church of Alexandria, 2727 Jackson Street, Alexandria, Louisiana 71301.

14 thoughts

  1. Lamar,
    So sorry to hear about your loss. I have only heard wonderful things about your lovely grandmother since arriving in Alexandria. May her spirit rest in blissful peace. Her footprint on the world has been embedded deeply and her works will surely continue on for generations to come.

  2. Lamar
    Over the years I had contact with her, I enjoyed every brief moment. She made a positive impression on Central Louisiana with her work and it will endure.


  3. That truly would have been a great challenge and great honor to write! You did so beautifully.
    So neat to hear every one of her accomplishments. What a great lady!
    I have a beautiful Celtic cross that she gave me as a confirmand at church. Sweet lady!
    Thinking of you and the whole family. And, I’m looking forward to reading more that you write about her.
    Ally Burlew Parker

  4. Lamar, You are so lucky to be a part of such a great family, who have done so much for others.Be well my friend.

    Regards, Greg McAlister

  5. Sorry for your loss, Lamar. Your grandma sounds like a rockin’ human being. Powerful tribute, as Mr. Jordan stated.

  6. Lamar and all the White Family,

    I will always remember your grandmother, my aunt, as an exceptionally kind and energetic lady of the South. She not only had compassion for others, she did something about it, which is a rare thing in this world. She was also a great cook, her Rice and Gravy being my favorite as a little boy.

    With her passing it must seem that an era has passed. We talk of the greatest generation, and we think of the boys that fought WWII, but Aunt Jo reminds me of the amazing strength, work ethic, and vision of the ladies of that generation. She will be missed, but not forgotten. She has passed on but she is not gone, for she walks the streets of Heaven this very day.

    Harold E. McGowen III (“Mack”)

  7. Dear Lamar,

    My deepest condolences on the loss of your grandmother, which truly is heaven’s gain. I had the privilege of working with her on many community-minded endeavors and committees, many of which you mentioned in the fine memorial you wrote above. One of my cherished memories was working with her on the prayer committee for the Franklin Graham crusade. Her belief in prayer, coupled with her ability to put feet to her prayers, made her a unique champion. I’m honored to have known her. You and your family remain in my prayers for comfort and peace.


  8. Saddened to have her leave us, but elated to have had her with us. She is loved and missed.

    Aunt Jo was always a bright spot in my already bright visits back home to Louisiana. Celebrate her.

    Jed Gresham

  9. I am overwhelmed by the service of your Grandmother. As a social worker of 18 years in this community I have relied on the resources of many of these charities to aid my clients. What a legacy! I am honored to have stumbled upon this obituary tonight.

  10. This is very late … I moved away from the area 30 years ago and just recently learned of Joanne’s passing, but FUMC-Alexandria, the choir, and all the people there are still close to my heart. Joanne was such a wonderful person, and so dedicated to FUMC. We were all blessed to know her. Peace be with you and your family.

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