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President Kennedy summoned the White House reporters and photographers to his office late in the afternoon of last March 30 and read them the following statement: "The President of the United States has few more exacting responsibilities than the appointment of Justices to the United States Supreme Court. I am delighted to announce today that Byron White, the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, has accepted appointment as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
"I have known Mr. White for over 20 years," the President continued. "His character, experience and intellectual force qualify him superbly for service on the nation's highest tribunal.... He has excelled in everything he has attempted—in his academic life, in his military service, in his career before the bar and in the Federal Government—and I know that he will excel on the highest court in the land."
Scarcely two weeks after this announcement was made, White was sworn in as the 93rd Justice in the history of the Supreme Court. After he had taken the judicial oath from John F. Davis, the court clerk, White seated himself in the high leather armchair at the far left end of the row of nine Justices and flashed a quick smile at his wife Marion and their elder child, 8-year-old Charles.
This was a rare moment in current history, for it was a rare man who had just been seated as a member of the most powerful and exalted judicial body in Western civilization. To many Americans of middle age or over, the new Justice was something of a curiosity in his new black robes and looking his full 44 years under a thinning cover of gray-brown hair. People of approximately his own age are more likely to think of Justice White looking somewhat younger in the black-and-gold football uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates or the royal blue of the Detroit Lions or the silver and gold colors of the University of Colorado, twisting and scampering through a broken field of frustrated tacklers. They remember him as Whizzer White, All-America football player of 1937, leading ground-gainer among the NFL pros in 1938 and 1940. Never before has an American athlete of such fame risen to so distinguished a position in later life.
Sitting these days in his chambers in the awesomely marbled Supreme Court Building, Justice White is a friendly and seemingly relaxed kind of man. He dresses informally, often in nonmatching trousers and jacket, sometimes in loafers. He still maintains the sinewy dimensions of his college days, 6 feet 2 inches and 190 pounds, and there is power in the abrupt slope of his shoulders. He moves gracefully, with a distinct spring in his step. He gets easily to a first-name basis, and despite his rather stern expression there is humor and warmth in his light-gray eyes as they peer at you through the upper quadrant of his large spectacles.
The office is obviously a workroom, for all its high-ceilinged, paneled dignity. Large, comfortable leather-covered furniture beckons visitors. His broad, glass-topped desk is alitter with legal books and reports, their innards already marked for quick reference by the two law clerks who sit in an adjoining office. The only reminder of his youthful triumphs is a shiny tan-and-white football autographed by the current Detroit Lions. The team gave it to White when he was sworn in, and he has put it on a shelf among row on row of legal texts.
The Justice has never been a man who enjoyed talking about himself or seeing his name in print. According to E. Calvert Cheston, a Philadelphia lawyer who spent two years in the intimacy of wartime companionship with White while they were both serving on the staff of Admiral Marc Mitscher, "Byron almost never talked about his exploits or about his family or his past. He had a marvelous sense of humor, and he was damn good company either on the ship or when you went out on a party with him in Pearl. But unless you asked him, he'd never tell you anything about his football. Byron is about one of the humblest guys you'll ever meet."
Several months ago, however, Justice White consented to take some time out of an already overcrowded schedule to try to explain to a persistently curious visitor something of his own impressions of that brief run of years—hardly half a lifetime—that had brought him to the height of athletic fame and then to the height of his profession.
As the Justice began to talk, one's thoughts went to the bare words in the official White House biography, issued at the time of his appointment, which began, "Byron R. [for Raymond] White was born on June 8, 1917 at Fort Collins, Colorado and attended elementary and high school at Wellington, Colorado."
Wellington [White said] is surrounded by a lot of irrigated farmland with a series of reservoirs to supply the water. There were about 350 God-fearing souls living in town when I was growing up. It was a small town—a few stores, one bank, a post office and so on.