Posted by Jeremy Pittenger on August 5, 2013
It could have been billed as an Aurora University alumni reunion in Cooperstown, New York, on Sunday, July 28. AU alumni and generations of the White-Watkins family—who also have ties to Aurora University—gathered to honor James “Deacon” White, one of the newest members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and a man with deep roots to the university going back to 1909.
Deacon was born on December 7, 1847, in New York. At the of age 21, he began a 20-season professional baseball career playing for seven different teams. He was a catcher at a time when catchers caught barehanded and stood back from the plate. He is credited with having the first hit in a professional baseball game—a double in a game of the National Association, which is considered by most historians to be the first professional league. Twice he led the league, compiling a lifetime average of .312.
Baseball was only part of Deacon’s legacy, however. He was a devout Christian and lifelong member of the Advent Christian Church. It was the way he read the Bible and the patience he demonstrated on the field for which his teammates nicknamed him Deacon. His connection to the church would lead to a long relationship with Mendota College (now Aurora University) in Illinois, a school founded by a group affiliated with the church.
Deacon and his wife, Marium, had one daughter, Grace. When Grace was ready to attend college she enrolled at Mendota. Grace later married her college sweetheart, Roger Watkins (for whom Watkins Hall is named), and they started a printing business in town. After Deacon was done playing baseball, he and his wife, Marium, moved to Mendota. He worked for the college grounds crew while she served as a house parent. Marium passed away a few years after moving to Mendota. Following her death, Deacon reconnected with his friend, Alice, who he knew from his earlier days of playing baseball, and they married.
When Mendota College moved to Aurora, the Whites and Watkins followed. All four of the grandchildren—Jim, Marium, Betty and Dan Watkins—attended Aurora College and three of the four siblings met their spouses there. Mark Trumbo, Marium’s husband, served as dean of the college. Eight of Deacon’s great-grandchildren attended Aurora University, including Joan Watkins who is a part-time instructor today.
“The values of service and giving that Deacon White imparted to my family are as strong today as they were in his generation,” she said. “Many of us have graduated from the university and gone on to service-type careers. Our family includes teachers, school administrators, nurses, social workers, Christian book publishers, Advent Christian Village workers, and leaders in schools and churches.”
So it was with good reason that many of Deacon’s descendents gathered in Cooperstown to celebrate his legacy. His great-grandson, Jerry Watkins, spoke at the ceremony. Another great-grandson, James B. Jackson, wrote an article about Deacon for the daily online magazine Slate.
As Joan Watkins put it, “I believe that when we celebrate our heritage, we also provide hope for the future.” Today, White not only serves as an inspiration to his family, but to the hundreds of Aurora University student-athletes who strive to continue a legacy of excelling both on and off the field.