Friends, family, colleagues gather to exchange stories of Kansas City icon
KANSAS CITY -- Fred White wanted not to be mourned, but rather that his time with others would be celebrated.
White's wish was honored on Tuesday, when family, friends, colleagues and admirers by the hundreds gathered at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan. There was more than an hour of wonderful memories punctuated by laughter and tears.
White, a Royals broadcaster for 25 years from 1973-98, died on May 15 of melanoma. He was 76 and had just retired as the team's director of broadcast services and the Royals Alumni.
"He was a great storyteller," son John White said.
So several folks told some Fred White stories, including broadcasters Mitch Holthus, Ryan Lefebvre and Steve Physioc; friends Jim Cook and Bob Beachy; and his sons John and Joe White.
Holthus spun some tales relating to White's Kansas State broadcasting days involving basketball coach Jack Hartman, but he also remembered how helpful he was, especially during Holthus' down days with the Kansas City Chiefs.
"Fred was like a dad, a big brother and a good friend all rolled into one special person," Holthus said. "Somehow, Fred always knew the right time to call and the right thing to say. ... It seemed like when I was lowest and most discouraged is when Fred would call. That was what Fred was all about."
Holthus announced that a scholarship in White's name was being established at Kansas State.
"We want to have a Fred White senior scholar every year on that campus so that Fred and the attributes that made him what he was will never, ever be forgotten." Holthus said.
Lefebvre, who replaced White in the Royals' booth in 1999, recalled how White's encouragement helped his own transition from Minnesota to Kansas City.
"I was aware of how hurt he was after losing the job he loved so much. I knew how hurt Royals fans were," Lefebvre said. "I read about it in the newspaper, I heard about it from my colleagues. George Brett even talked about it in his press conference after finding out he'd been elected to the Hall of Fame."
Lefebvre said that White could have been critical of the Royals' move or avoided the topic, but he did neither.
"Instead, he told one of the most listened-to radio audiences in Kansas City to give me a chance," Lefebvre said. "I don't know how many men would do something so selflessly and so generously, but Fred did that for me."
Later, when Denny Matthews cut back on his travel, White returned to fill in and joined Lefebvre in the booth.
"What a great time we had in those years together," Lefebvre said.
That's when he really felt accepted by Kansas City listeners.
"I believe the biggest reason, by far, was Royals fans thinking to themselves: 'Well, if Fred can tolerate him, I guess I can, too,'" Lefebvre said.
Physioc, now on the Royals' broadcasting team, recalled how White helped him move up from a radio station in Hastings, Neb. Physioc was on vacation at his Kansas City home, and upon his mother's urging, he called White, who promptly invited him to the stadium. White arranged for Physioc to sit in an empty radio booth and practice his play-by-play into a tape recorder.
"Here's the reason why," Physioc recalled White telling him. "You're broadcasting in Hastings, Neb., to 50 people, maybe 100. But today, with the Royals doing so well, we're going to have 30,000 people and you're going to sound like you've got this great orchestra behind you, and I want you to broadcast into it and I'll critique it.' "
White went further than that, taking the tape to his Topeka station, leading to Physioc's jobs there and at K-State.
"He was always lifting us up," Physioc said. "Fred was one of the most generous people I've ever met, with his time, his energy, his passion for the business, the world of sports and his family."
White was a familiar voice in the Midwest, but his son Joe said that his father didn't seem to fully realize how much listeners loved him.
"If you are a radio broadcaster, there's an element of trust involved in it. You are the conduit from what's going on in the field to what's going on in their minds," Joe White told the gathering. "With TV, you get a picture, but on radio, they trust you. So 162 games a year, people invited him into their homes and their tractors, fields, the cars on a trip, maybe on the back porch having a drink. It was like he was there with them. And, really, until the end, he never understood that. And when he did, it was a pretty beautiful thing."
Beachy read his friend's final message that he left for his friends and family.
"Friendship is a wonderful gift, and I only hope I was as good a friend to you as you were to me," White wrote in part. "You're all special, and if I could have one description of me, I'd want it to be: 'He was my friend.' I know I'm glad you were mine."
Fred White's legacy as a sports broadcaster, according to the tenor of Tuesday's celebration, was matched by his stature as family man, friend and counselor.
Lefebvre put it this way: "I've heard the sobering words before: 'You will not enter the kingdom of heaven except leaning upon the arms of someone you helped.' If that is true, then Fred was carried into heaven by a crowd."