March 31, 2005 St. John resident Alvin White has packed a lot of living into his 72 years, including a recent dive with famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle.
His first few decades were routine. After finishing high school in Dunellen, N. J., White graduated in 1954 with a degree in business administration from Rutgers University in nearby New Brunswick. He then spent a three-year tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force, including a stint in Korea.
He became a United Way fundraiser, working in New York and Delaware, until a vacation at Cinnamon Bay Campground on St. John changed his life forever.
"That did it," he said, reflecting on his life.
He and his wife, Mary, and their 7- and 8-year-old children moved lock, stock and barrel to St. Thomas. The couple first managed the long-gone Tropic Isle Hotel across from the airport. In his free time, White took up spear fishing; he won the annual spear fishing tournament two years in a row.
White then got into scuba diving big time. He formed an association of diving instructors in the mid-1960s to provide training and credentials to the people who pioneered St. Thomas' recreational diving industry.
"Joe Vogel, Tommy Carlin, John Hamber ," he said, ticking off the names of some of St. Thomas' diving legends.
This brought him to the attention of then-Gov. Ralph Paiewonsky, who recommended White when General Electric came looking for someone to assist with its development of an undersea lab, White said. The company wanted to simulate the weightlessness it expected astronauts to experience on its Manned Orbital Lab project.
"I worked for nine months with only three days off," he said.
He launched the undersea lab at the West Indian Co. dock and towed it to Buck Island off St. Thomas so the astronauts could train.
White got to know astronaut Bob Obermeyer, who invited him to watch him blast into space.
The Manned Orbital Lab project faltered after the U.S. Congress quit funding it, but White said General Electric soon realized it had lost a big public relations benefit when the project ended.
This led to the Tektite I and II projects, funded by General Electric, the U.S. Navy, NASA and the Interior Department, he said.
"I trained technicians, was the safety diver and ran the VIP boat," he said. He subsequently trained a crew of U.S. Army Green Berets on their way to Vietnam.
At this point, he and his wife thought it would be a good idea to take their children back to the mainland for school, so they moved first to his hometown of Dunellen and then to West Palm Beach, Fla., where White again worked in fundraising while he and his family lived aboard their boat.
About 10 years ago, White, his wife and their boat returned to St. Thomas, where they lived at Red Hook. A long-term housesitting job turned up on St. John, where he's become active in community endeavors, freelances as a captain for several charter boat companies and heads out on diving excursions like the recent Ocean Conservancy event that featured Earle.
Looking back, as he leafed through a stack of "Life" and "National Geographic" magazines that include photos of White and the Tektite projects, he reflected on his life's various adventures.
"Isn't it the dream of most American men to escape to the tropics?" he asked.
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