White is Adams State College 2008 Outstanding Alumnus

(09-29-2008)

"Hitting the Wall," is an expression marathon runners use to describe absolute fatigue - it can stop them dead-in-their-tracks during a race.

Dr. Tommy White, Adams State class of 1983, might have hit that wall the summer prior to his senior year at Adams State College. A drunk driver took away this five-time All American runner's chances of competing, in an accident all but severed his left foot.

That was a pretty big "hit" and the "wall" could have been the end to his running career, and to professional and personal happiness.

White was chosen Adams State College's 2008 Outstanding Alumnus, in recognition of the perseverance he demonstrated in the years that followed the accident. Tim Terrill, Adams State class of 1981, nominated White because he exemplifies the qualities of an Outstanding Alumnus. "He also has a gift for pushing himself and a very uncommon determination that drives him from within," Terrill said. "I have always held a certain level of admiration for Tommy, he is a great friend and deserves more recognition than he gets."

Another teammate, Dan Garcia, class of 1985 and 1993, said White is "one of the most inspirational persons" he has ever met. Garcia added, "He (White) has an incredibly positive outlook in life and his determination and perseverance is second to none."

White said he was "blown away," when he was told he was selected. "It is an incredible honor. To be honored by the school, classmates, and teammates is hard to beat."

"I have a great life," White said. "I am absolutely blessed. I would not change anything about my life, even the accident. I live in a great place, I have a great job, wonderful wife and family and the teams I coach are like my family too. I have my ups-and-downs and set-backs but every day I wake up is a great day."

Making Personal Connections

The history of White is hard to beat. After graduating from Adams State, he earned a master's degree in biochemistry from the University of Denver. He and his wife, Tammy, moved to North Carolina, where he did research for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill medical school, while Tammy earned her master's in physical therapy at Duke. His research was published in scholarly journals. White said while he loves research, he realized he receives the most satisfaction from personal interaction. So after finishing medical school at the University of California at Davis and serving his residency at St. Mary's in Grand Junction, he opened a family practice in Buena Vista, Colo., where he and his family have lived for 12 years.

White said the best part of his professional life is "getting to know people. No doubt about it. I see people over a long period and enjoy sharing stories. You can't imagine the stories I've heard."

The Whites are devoted to the physical well-being of their community. Tammy practices physical therapy in Buena Vista, population 2,000, and the couple coaches the women's high school cross-country team. They also coach an elementary children's running team, the "Speed Demons," and the "Red Hot Mamas," an informal group, of mostly housewives, who like to run for health, fun, and the occasional marathon.

"I recognize the number one health problem in this country is due to poor fitness," White said. "It is the root of most health problems. Tammy and I work at a grass-roots level to build a culture of fitness within our community." He said the high school women and elementary children will spread the culture as they grow up. "It is the biggest mistake of our educational system to eliminate sports, art, and music from programs in an attempt to raise testing scores," White added.

"He has this unquenchable compassion for his fellow man," Terrill said. "Tommy believes that he was put on this earth to help others and he just never stops pursuing that goal."

White's former coach, Dr. Joe Vigil, Adams State class years of 1953 and 1959, agreed: "Tom wants the best for humanity and his community he is not in medicine for the money; he is a true believer in the Hippocratic Oath. He exhibits the Olympic ideals of outstanding quality, integrity, compassion and discipline."

Rhoda Boucher, White's nurse at the Mountain Medical Clinic, said, "Dr. White has a true passion for fitness that is seen in his drive to be the best he can be and through the encouragement he gives to everyone he meets. His commitment to exercise and fitness is lived out every day and he shares his passion with those around him. Dr. White initiated providing free sport physical exams for all the athletes in the area."

According to Boucher, White has been involved in the community over the years as a rural family practice physician, EMS and Chaffee County Fire Department Director, and Public Health Medical Advisor. "He assisted in getting the Chaffee People's Clinic started, which is a free clinic so people without insurance can get the medical assistance that they need," she said.

"I am most proud of coaching and the clinic for the medically underserved," White said.

Body, Mind and Spirit

Slightly more impressive is White's dedication to his personal physical fitness. He was the New Mexico 4A State Cross-Country Champion in high school. The acclaim continued after he was recruited by Coach Vigil to run for Adams State - until the accident.

"There were no blood vessels left, but fortunately half a nerve and my Achilles tendon was still attached," White said. He was working that summer as a bee keeper in Rifle and volunteered at a local hospital. "Dr. Richard Jansen in Grand Junction reattached my foot. I spent 100 days in the hospital and the next two years on crutches."

White's competitive running career was ended but his spirit and love of fitness was not. "I was left with a pronounced limp," White said. "For rehabilitation, I started training on a borrowed racing bicycle and I ended up qualifying for the Olympic Trials." Since then he has also taken up running again, including 50 mile runs. He is gaining notoriety outside of his alma mater; he has been interviewed by NBC Dateline, Runner's World, and the NCAA, over the last year. "It is funny how the world works," White said. "I get run over by a truck and years later I am famous for it."

He is quick to credit his former coach, Vigil, with much of his dedication and success. "Coach Vigil is a great man he is the most influential person in my life," White said. "He gave me my basic life philosophy, based on simple tenants. He looks into your heart, and whether or not you are the world's greatest runner or mediocre, inspires all of us."

A remarkable man himself, it was evident Vigil considers White a man deserving of recognition. Vigil credits White's parents for instilling a sense of values. "Tom's dad only wanted to see the library during a recruiting visit." Vigil speaks of White's courage - recalling the time he went to see him while he was in the hospital, and White's foot was grafted to his right thigh for 'blood supply.'"

"Ten years, to the date (of the accident), Tom came to run the annual alumni meet," Vigil said. "It is the toughest meet of the year for our runners. They are number one in the country but our alumni are tough. I'll never forget the meet, Pat Porter, Adams State class of 1982, broke the existing record, Tom came in last, hobbling the last miles."

There was the time White met Vigil at the New York marathon and they attended a party held by Runner's World. The guest of honor was a physical therapist who worked with veterans who wear prosthetics. "Tom listened to every word," Vigil said. "The veterans all ran, and finished, the New York marathon." Later in the year, White decided the constant pain made him a good candidate for prosthesis. "He called to tell me he could not walk with his cross country team before the race to talk about the race plan," Vigil said. Currently White is adjusting to his "new" limb.

"We live a very active lifestyle," White said. "I went through the amputation so I could stay active with my wife and children."

Long Green Line

Besides remaining close to Vigil, White is in regular contact with many of his former teammates, and other past, present and future runners who consist of the "Long Green Line." "We trained hard and competed against all adversity. Through the good and the bad times we worked together for common goals. And it transcends different generations, before and after my college career, we all share the same bond."

"Tommy has always been a highly respected individual on the team," Terrill said, "a leader and a tremendous example by his academic achievements in college, as well as a 'stand-out' personality. He has always been a genuine, honest and straight forward guy, but also a person of high ideals."

Randy Cooper "Coop," Adams State class of 1982, was White's roommate during college. "To me, Tom defines what we, The Long Green Line, should aspire to become, a giant among men. Tom has truly humbled me many times in the years I have known him, his pure mental toughness and will alone set him apart from anyone I have known."

High Academic Standards

Graduating magna cum laude from Adams State, White said his professors were encouraging and supportive. He mentioned Dr. Kay Watkins, emeritus professor of chemistry, and Adams State class of 1955; Dr. Neil Rudolph, emeritus professor of chemistry; and Dr. Ron Loser, emeritus professor of mathematics, and Adams State class of 1965, as being mentors. "The professors and staff take people in and really nurture them. I profited from my time in class and the closeness and friendliness, which is the best part of Adams."

Watkins said he remembers White as an excellent chemistry student and dedicated athlete. "His positive attitude and hard-work are exemplary."

Loser said it impressed him when White took multiple variable calculus as a pre-med students, it was a level higher than the requirement. "Tom was a hard-worker and nice guy. He had a very caring personality."

Rudolph agrees with Loser and Watkins: "I am always impressed that a pre-medical student does well in physical chemistry as the subject matter is far afield for the medical profession. As I remember the class, it was a fun group to teach and Tom helped make it so."

White inspires admiration

"He (White) has been an inspiration to all of us whose lives he's touched," Garcia said. "With his great sense of humor and empathy, he has been a big supporter of what I've done, and has been a great role model for everyone to see. Tommy has never made excuses while conquering his challenges and is always setting new goals to achieve."

White and Tammy have two daughters, Whitney and Jasmine. "His family is the most important single factor in his life," Terrill said. "He finds the time to balance the many personal and professional goals and objectives that he is faced with while pursuing the unrelenting demands of his profession."

"I have never known anyone who valued life more and expressed it more openly than Tommy," Terrill continued. "Every day is an opportunity for him and he lives his life day to day, pursuing every new day with that attitude of opportunism. Tommy has this innate ability to bring the best out of everyone he comes in contact with. When you meet him, get to know him, you invariably come away affected by his positive outlook and you feel better for it."

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By Linda Relyea