Archived Story

Heroic spirit still alive today

Published 8:44am Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Let’s be serious this week.

Nobody asks to be a hero. It just turns out that way.

When Mark White, saw smoke and flames coming from a neighbor’s house down the road from his rural Owatonna residence, he didn’t hesitate. He called firefighters and raced to the scene.

His wife Lisa’s reaction, “Oh not again.”

Only a month earlier, White pulled a 57-year-old Owatonna woman from Straight River floodwaters, saving her life.

In order to rescue the woman, clinging to a log in the flood-swollen river, he waded into waters up to his waist and risked his own life.

“I’ve never done anything like that before,” he said of his heroism.

That he would plunge into still another incident, requiring quick thinking and action only a month after the river rescue underscores what an extraordinary man he is.

Could you do what he did? Could I?

Would you? Would I?

White credits his safety training as an Alliant Energy lineman with helping him intervene in emergencies in the work place and beyond.

It may be in his genes.

Mark is the son of Gene and Jean White, Austin. He has one brother and three sisters and graduated from Austin High School.

He worked for Austin Utilities before moving to Owatonna and taking a job with Alliant Energy. He and his wife, Lisa, have a daughter, 21, and a son, 19.

His father, Gene, is a former Austin police officer, who also worked for Hormel Foods Corporation for 40 years in Austin, where his wife, Jean, worked at the former Weyerhaeuser Paper Company plant for 35 years.

The father is a power lifter, who has made the Austin YMCA his second home, working out and training others to stay physically fit.

Perhaps, he is at his strongest, when he is gentle.

Worshippers at Grace Lutheran Church regularly see Gene assist his wife, who suffers health problems, helping her stand, helping her walk.

There are no barriers to his affection and concern for his wife in public.

Austinites may also remember his mother, Marie White, now deceased, whose wit and intelligence made her a favorite of family and friends. The woman’s stories of dealing with poverty during the Great Depression are evidence of another kind of personal heroism.

Since the awful Tucson tragedy, there has been much discussion of heroism.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford has been called a “fighter” for her recovery from suffering a bullet through the brain.

Those who valiantly acted to protect her and others from a gunman’s rampage, have been labeled “heroes” and deservedly so.

As memories of those who died in the shooting incident fade, plaudits of heroism for survivors continue as well as prayers for other victims to recover.

The one commonality among those involved in the Tucson tragedy is to shrug off being labeled heroes.

Mark White is no different.

A man and woman were kayaking in the Straight River that morning (June 22, 2010), when the swift current caused their kayak to overturn. The husband made it out of the water and walked to the roadway to flag down a motorist. His wife clung to a log in the river.

Residents living nearby had already left their homes for work, but the husband saw a utility boom trick and flagged it down.

It was Mark White on his way to work.

“The first question he asked me was ‘Do you have any rope?’” White said.

White called 9-1-1 and reported the emergency. He left his truck by the roadside, turned on his emergency flashing lights and grabbed a rope and followed the husband to the riverbed. It was 150 yards away.

White called to the woman to stay calm and hold on to the log and then waded into the water.

While the husband watched, White tossed the rope to the woman. On the second attempt, she grabbed the rope and fastened it around her mid-section.

Rescuers from the Owatonna Fire Department arrived and assisted White it pulling the woman from the water.

The woman was put into an ambulance with her husband and rushed to the hospital.

After a few perfunctory words with firefighters, White rolled up his rope and went back to his truck.

He called his employer to tell what happened and that he would be late to work that day.

Last Christmas, he received a card from the woman, who thanked him for saving her life.

An Owatonna Fire Department official wrote White’s employer praising his actions.

“Most people aren’t given the opportunity to do something like I did,” he said. “I had the training and the equipment because of my job to do something. I’m no hero. I’m just an Average Joe.”

The man’s humility notwithstanding, there’s an Owatonna woman and her husband who would dispute that.

Above Average Joe is more like it.

This is not all the only heroic tale to re-tell today.

Forty-five years ago on a December afternoon in 1966, Gene White, then a police officer, was dispatched to the Fourth Avenue Northeast Bridge over the Cedar River near a popular ice cream store, Klagge’s.

Three boys playing on a snow pile along the river’s bank had slid into the freezing water.

Chet Nelson, another police officer at the time, was ending his shift and heard the call and went to the scene.

The first rescuers on the scene waded into the water to pull a 12-year-old boy to safety, while the other 2 youths scrambled out of harm’s way.

“The water was 5 or 6 feet deep and all I could see was the top of the boy’s head, when I waded into the river,” White recalled.

When he was pulled from the water to the riverbank, the boy wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. White performer heart massage and CPR until an ambulance crew arrived to take the youth to the hospital.

White and Nelson rode in the ambulance with the victim.

Nelson suffered a heart attack and was admitted to the hospital. He survived and so did the boy.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 1216 gave White and Nelson a trophy for their heroism that day 45 years ago.

“It was just something we were trained to do in an emergency; something we were supposed to do because we were police officers,” White said.

First the father, then the son. Heroic acts now remembered with humility. Their own lives risked for strangers.

Neither the father, nor the son asked to be a hero. It just turned out that way.

Could you do what they did? Could I?

Would you? Would I?


Sign in to Comment | Need help commenting? Click here

  • deboysen@smig.net

    What a great article, on the White family. We have to admire them greatly. Thanks Lee, for putting it in words, you do a fantastic job, you & the White family, are “Great Americans”….keep up the good work.

    Report comment

Editor's Picks