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Unfinished Universe was his book and his business

Pat White’s book Unfinished Universe remains unfinished.

At some point, his family plans to do something about the book, which he’d been working on for years. But right now they are grieving.

Mr. White, a popular former University of Kentucky English teacher and former longtime co-owner of the furniture restoration business Unfinished Universe, which was named after his book, died of complications from emphysema Wednesday at St. Joseph Hospital. He was 70.

”He really didn’t write so much to publish; he wrote because he needed to, and he had a lot to say,“ said Ricka White, his widow. The book Unfinished Universe is about learning, teaching, education, culture and thought processes, she said.

Mr. White, who held a bachelor’s degree in English from Washington and Lee University and a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia, had a long teaching career at UK, but his status at the university changed at the height of the Vietnam War.

The mother of one of his former students, worried that her daughter was in danger, called him during an anti-war demonstration on campus and asked him to find her. While looking for her, he came upon a visiting professor friend being tear-gassed by National Guardsmen. A guardsman told Mr. White that if he didn’t move, he’d be arrested. Mr. White told the guardsman to arrest him, Ricka White said.

”I think Pat protested war in general, and he protested inhumane treatment of anybody at any time,“ she said.

Years earlier, Mr. White had been in a Marine Corps officer training program. Learning to kill horrified him, his widow said. When he got to the point that he wanted to kill his commanding officer, he quit, she said.

”He was really not a troublemaker. Pat was gracious, always. He never really intended to be a troublemaker. He was just a good, honest man,“ Ricka White said.

”He was a wonderful teacher ... He was an ally in the anti-war movement. I appreciate him for that,“ said Guy Mendes, a documentary producer and photographer who was a student at UK during the Vietnam War years.

Pat White’s arrest during the anti-war protest apparently did not sit well with UK officials. Mr. White was not granted tenure at UK. ”I was thrown into the streets,“ he said years later.

In 1972, he teamed up with Joel Evans, who had been a graduate student at UK, to restore and build furniture. Ricka White managed the business.

Pat White and Joel Evans read books on furniture, talked to craftsmen and went to woodworking shows.

”We didn’t make money for a long time,“ Mr. White said in a 2001 interview, shortly before the business closed. ”We learned at our expense, not at the customer’s expense.“

Unfinished Universe worked on furniture for the Mary Todd Lincoln House, the John Hunt Morgan House and the Governor’s Mansion in Frankfort. Overbrook and Juddmonte farms and Lexington law firms that needed conference tables refinished also were customers.

”I’ve repaired hundreds, thousands of chairs over the years. It was never routine,“ Mr. White said in 2001.

”We did whatever we needed to do to keep things going,“ Evans said Friday. But eventually, he said, ”we got old and tired.“

”We were really good friends,“ he said.

By the late 1990s, years of exposure to the sawdust and fumes that came with woodworking and years of heavy cigarette smoking had taken their toll on Mr. White. He used an oxygen tank for the last several years of his life.

He read and reread thousands of books during his life. Among his favorite authors were Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. Mr. White also liked the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska. He regretted never having played a musical instrument, but he enjoyed listening to music, from Bob Dylan to Bill Evans, and he had a vast collection of recorded music.

Mr. White, a Texas native who grew up in West Virginia and Montana, moved to Lexington after stints as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Virginia and as a teacher at Blue Ridge School, a preparatory school outside Charlottesville, Va.

Among his many students at UK was the woman who became his second wife.

”I just feel like I had so much more to learn from Pat,“ Ricka White said Friday.

In addition to his wife, Mr. White is survived by three daughters, Page Carpenter and Sully White, both of Spartanburg, S.C., and Darran White Tilghman of Baltimore, Md.; a son, Chris White of Oakland, Calif.; a sister; and a granddaughter.

A private celebration of Mr. White’s life will be held Saturday night. A memorial service is planned for the Saturday after Thanksgiving, his favorite holiday.

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