Byron White was humble and he was studious and he had the work ethic of one who grew up in a small Colorado town. Which was Wellington in his case. And it was here in Wellington that he went to school and where he played sports and even as a young boy of seven or eight, where he worked. Because everybody worked in his town.
But his parents, who didn’t even go through high school, made sure that Byron focused on his schoolwork. This was the top priority for both Byron and his older brother. For as long as he could remember his path in life was going to have a stop at college.
Byron graduated first in his high school class of six people. Which in Colorado meant that he was offered a full scholarship to the University of Colorado.
At Colorado, he became a star athelete. He led the football team to an undefeated record in his final year, and to the Cotton Bowl. Where he ran in touchdowns, passed for touchdowns, kicked extra points and intercepted passes. And it was also at Colorado that he found academic success. Byron started in chemistry, but changed to the humanities and economics. “I quit chemistry just at the point where you’ve done all the boring memory work and it begins to get interesting. I have a feeling that if I’d kept on with it I’d have ended up as a doctor. My parents wanted me to be what I wanted to be. They had a pretty simple prescription for living. You worked hard, did as well as you could and were considerate of other people’s feelings.”
His football accomplishments were noticed by Art Rooney, owner of the NFL team the Pittsburgh Pirates (now the Steelers). They made Byron their first choice in the draft and offered him the highest salary every earned by a pro. $15,000, the equivalent of $260,000 in 2016. He accepted and that year he led the league in rushing yards, the first time a rookie ever led the league in any category.
But Byron wanted to continue his studies. He had earned a Rhodes Scholarship and wanted to go to Oxford. So after his first NFL season, he went to England to study.
People there questioned his ability to keep up with the rigors of study. But Byron did as Byron knew best. He worked hard. He studied fourteen hours a day. Even while on vacation with his classmates in the French Riviera.
After Oxford, he came back to the U.S. and enrolled in law school. As the story goes, he was on his way to enroll in Harvard but got sick on the train ride there. He took the stop in New Haven, Connecticut and enrolled at Yale instead. Which worked out well for him. “Yale Law School was the most stimulating intellectual experience I had had up to that time. There was a fairly small enrollment and a relatively large staff, so you had a great opportunity to be exposed to some of the finest legal minds in the country.”
But wanting to earn money for law school, Byron went back to football, though this time now with the Detroit Lions who had bought out his contract. His first year back in 1940, he once again led the league in rushing yards.
But war had broken out and the military draft was taking place. “My draft number was coming up during my second season at Detroit, so I tried to get into the Marines, but they flunked me on the color-blind test when they discovered I was slightly green-blind. I couldn’t fly because of my eyes, so I had decided to enlist or get drafted when I discovered that I could get a waiver on my eye test from naval intelligence. So I signed up with them.”
After the war, Byron finished law school. He became a lawyer in Denver and he got involved in local politics. “Everyone in this country has an obligation to take part in politics. That’s the foundation, the most important principle, on which our system is built,” was his belief.
His political life led him to the role of Deputy Attorney General, and then in 1962, he became an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. A position he held until 1993, when he retired and was replaced by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.