James A. “Sneaky” White, Jr. (b. 1939) was born in London, England. He was adopted by a Jewish couple from Connecticut as a child, and never knew his biological parents. White grew up in a kosher home, and regularly went to the synagogue. He studied at Texas A&M, then enlisted in the US military where he served for the next decade and rose to the rank of sergeant. White did a tour in Cuba in 1965, followed by four tours in Vietnam as a marine and helicopter pilot. He earned over twenty medals, including three silver stars and a Distinguished Flying Cross for “uncommon courage, bold initiative and selfless devotion to duty at great personal risk.” Once, he ran across a field studded with land mines and emerged unharmed, for which he was given the nickname “Sneaky”. As with many Vietnam veterans, White returned to the US disabled and broke. He made a living working various jobs. In 1975 he met Nancy, the love of his life, and they married several years later. Nancy’s abusive ex-husband threatened the newlyweds, then sexually assaulted a step-daughter. In a fit of rage, White shot and killed the man. He turned himself in to police immediately. Despite suffering from PTSD, White was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He decided to make the most out of his incarceration. White took college courses, subscribed to as many magazines as he could, started studying Torah, became deeply religious, and even published a book. He wanted to help other war veterans who struggled like he did and co-founded a veterans’ support group, as well as a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. After reading about recidivism rates, White decided to start a program to get inmates educated and keep them out of prison. Through his program, over 1500 of his fellow inmates went on to get college degrees. White ran a charity, too (from prison!) and raised over $350,000 for numerous causes. He recently donated his long hair for charity as well. White personally saved the lives of at least two inmates and one guard. He became an inspiration to countless people, and even gave a TEDx talk in 2014 (see here). Over the years, many have tried to get him pardoned and released. The campaign finally succeeded earlier this year when California’s governor intervened, and White was freed on January 21st after some 40 years in prison. In his own words: “I just want people to know that even in prison we can do mitzvahs and do something good for society. Just because a person commits a crime, it doesn’t mean that he or she is no longer a worthy person.”
Words of the Week
You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you. – Walt Disney
Edith Stern (b. 1952) was born in Brooklyn to impoverished Holocaust survivors who had married in the Warsaw Ghetto. Her father, Aaron Stern, had been a professor of languages (he was fluent in seven). When his daughter was born, he called a press conference – to which two reporters showed up – and declared: “I shall make her into the perfect human being.” Thus began what journalists at the time called “the Edith Project”. Stern immediately immersed his daughter in learning. He exposed her only to classical music, talked to her all the time, and taught her with flash cards. Suffering from jaw cancer and unable to work, Stern spent all of his time with Edith. By the age of 5, Edith had read through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Although her father did not believe in IQ tests, she nonetheless scored a 205 that same year. Edith enrolled in college at 12, earned her BS in mathematics by 15, and her Master’s at 18. By this point, she was already teaching at Michigan State University. She went on to defend her Ph.D and joined IBM’s R&D division. Today, Stern holds over 100 patents for technological innovations used in telephones, digital media, video conferencing, self-driving cars, and the internet. Stern is still a “distinguished engineer” at IBM, where she is a VP, and recently won the Kate Gleason Award for lifetime achievement in technology. Although her mother once disagreed with her father about his methods, she later concluded that it had made her a “very mature, compassionate, kind, intelligent and wise young woman.” Her father maintained that being a genius has little to do with genetics, and everything to do with how a child is raised and educated. He wrote in his 1971 The Making of a Genius: “I can foster the same meteoric IQ in the children of the Tasaday tribe, a Stone Age people living in the Philippines.”
We have 11 million Jews and from that we produced Einstein, and they couldn’t produce an Einstein from 170 million…it all depends on the head…the mind controls the muscles.
– David Ben-Gurion, responding to a question in 1957 of how the nascent Israeli soccer team might beat a professional Russian soccer team that chooses its players from 170 million citizens.