Billy Ray White, remembered as an influential leader in Menlo Park, an eloquent orator and the city's first African American mayor, died Jan. 26 at age 81. He remains the first and only City Council member in Menlo Park's history to hail from the city's Belle Haven neighborhood.
Mr. White was born June 29, 1936, to Q. W. White and Amanda Mattlock in Shelby County, Texas. He attended Prairie View A&M University, where he met Zerlene Victor. They married Aug. 22, 1955, and had six children together.
Billy Ray White. (Photo courtesy Menlo Park Historical Association.)
Mr. White served for seven years on the city's Planning Commission and was elected to the City Council in 1978, according to historians Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett in their book, "Menlo Park: Beyond the Gate." He had support from the Chamber of Commerce and on both sides of U.S. 101, they said.
He eventually served three terms as mayor, in 1980-81, 1982-83 and 1985-86, during three City Council terms, according to the Menlo Park Historical Association. In anticipation of his first mayoral term, an April 1980 edition of the Almanac noted: "Billy Ray White of Menlo Park will be making Peninsula History over the next year as the first black mayor of Menlo Park -- or any other local community."
After retiring from city government, Mr. White continued to work as a leader in Belle Haven, particularly as a member of the Big Six Domino Club, which supports the child development center and after-school programs. In 1998, he was presented with the Onetta Harris Community Service award for his work to upgrade the affordable apartments on Willow Road and institute a citywide tree assessment district.
According to "Menlo Park: Beyond the Gate," Mr. White was "more than just the first African-American mayor" in Menlo Park. "When Billy Ray White spoke, everybody listened," Mr. Svanevik and Ms. Burgett wrote.
Former Mayor Jack Morris told the Almanac that he served on the Planning Commission and City Council with Mr. White and that he used to dread having to give his comments after Mr. White.
"I'd have to say that Billy Ray was quite a speaker," Mr. Morris said. "I always hoped that I wouldn't have to be the person following him speaking about something. There was quite a step down, for me to be talking after he would."
Mr. Morris said that Mr. White was passionate about projects to support Belle Haven. "I think we weren't always on the same side of issues, but on redevelopment we certainly were," he said.
City Attorney Bill McClure recalled Mr. White's ability to speak directly."If he thought an issue was ridiculous, he'd say that."
He said he remembers Mr. White as a great council member. "He was always well-prepared and always well-versed in whatever the issues were that came before the City Council."
Mr. White, he said, was involved in projects to upgrade structures in Belle Haven, including the addition of street trees, street lights, storm drains and sidewalks.
Mr. White also pursued upgrades for what are now the Gateway Apartments on Willow Road, he said. The city secured redevelopment funds to upgrade the apartments on the 1200 and 1300 blocks of Willow Road that were in bad shape. They were purchased by MidPen Housing in 1987.
Mr. McClure said Mr. White had a great sense of humor, a positive outlook on life, and always had a smile. "He was a really positive person and a good influence on the council at the time."
Others remember Mr. White's leadership warmly too. Former mayor Bob Stephens, who served on the City Council before Mr. White, recalls, "Billy Ray and I had lots of conversations. He was a very fine person."
Historians Mr. Svanevik and Ms. Burgett characterized Mr. White's leadership as "blunt, direct and usually down to earth. He surfaced at a time when there was much angry talk from dissatisfied residents of Belle Haven and little was getting accomplished."
They quote former City Clerk Margaret Snowden, who said of Mr. White: "He really knew how to run meetings. ... When he was in charge, I got home from council meetings early."
Mr. White is survived by his brother Quincey E. White (Ruby); three children: William Douglas (Linda), Jeanetta Marie, and Charles Vernon (Shawn); eleven grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and many other relatives and friends.
He is preceded in death by his wife Zerlene; sister Ella Faye Norman (Roosey); and three children: Elbert Ray, Billy Ester and Johnetta Marie.
A repast was held after his service at the Onetta Harris Community Center in Menlo Park on Feb. 9.