Thomas White doesn’t like to talk about plans. He prefers to talk about journeys.
Perhaps that should be a surprise coming from a man who recently retired from a remarkably successful career in insurance and finance, industries that are built on planning. Then again, White is not your average CEO.
He is a former All-America college football player who graduated from Northeastern Illinois University in 1981 with a Bachelor of Arts in Physical Education. Who signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Who landed an entry-level insurance job on the recommendation of a former Northeastern teammate and rose to the very top of the industry, leading divisions all over the globe. And who—along with his wife, Karen—has dedicated his life to service and philanthropy, supporting charitable causes in Asia, Africa and of course at home in the United States.
“You never know what your journey will be,” White said. “Hold on to your core values. When you die, people don’t care about your net worth. What they really care about is whether you were a loving spouse, a loving daughter, a loving father.”
This is the message White plans to deliver during his Commencement address to students on Dec. 11. White was selected to speak after earning Northeastern’s 2016 Distinguished Alumnus Award, the highest honor the University bestows upon alumni.
“I’m humbled that I would be recognized this way,” said White, who received the award during the NEIU Weekend Golden Gala on Sept. 17. “It also makes me say I have to be a bigger supporter of Northeastern. I have to say out loud how much I love Northeastern. I have to be influential in the global communities to say there is a university where we need to be recruiting from.”
White now lives in Austin, Texas. His trip to the Main Campus in September was White’s first visit to Northeastern since he was inducted into the Sports Wall of Fame in the early 1990s.
“It brought back a lot of really good memories,” White said. “I went to school with so many great people. These are relationships that have lasted three and a half decades, and we’re still good friends.”
One of the many close college friends in attendance at the Golden Gala was Art Thompson, a former teammate on the football team.
“He taught me how to win with dignity, how to be able to accept losses, how to be a gentleman throughout the whole process,” White said.
Thompson also put White on the career path to success. After landing a job with Allstate out of college, Thompson recommended White for a job.
Allstate hired White, who worked his way up to executive management. He held a variety of senior positions around the world, especially in Asia. He was president and CEO of AIA living in Thailand and senior regional executive of AIG Asia, responsible for Southeast Asia.
He held a variety of senior positions for Zurich Insurance Company, most recently having served as president of Farmers Non-Insurance Businesses. Prior to that he led the Global HR function for Zurich Insurance Group with 65,000 employees headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, and he served as CEO for Zurich Japan.
“When I start looking around at how many people have been so successful from Northeastern, what’s the commonality?” said White, who graduated from Argo Community High School in the southwest suburbs of Chicago and attended the University of Wisconsin at Platteville before transferring to Northeastern. “Most of us were first-generation college graduates. Most of us were from the city. Most of us came up that way, and then to go on to unbelievable careers it says how much Northeastern provided us.”
While he experienced incredible business success, White is most proud of the charitable work he has done with Karen, his wife of 37 years.
Together, they have worked to help children with cleft palates through Operation Smile, built houses for tsunami victims and comforted abandoned babies with AIDS.
“Higher education is about opportunity,” Northeastern Interim President Richard Helldobler said. “Thomas White is a wonderful example of an alumnus who has taken advantage of every opportunity his education provided to achieve personal and professional success. We are proud to bring him into the exclusive club of Distinguished Alumnus Award recipients.”
White credits one of his favorite professors, Physical Education Professor Emeritus Dan Creely, with having a tremendous influence over his outlook on life through lessons on teamwork, mindfulness and spirituality. Shortly after White graduated from Northeastern, Creely gave him a copy of a book called “The Greatest Salesman in the World” by Og Mandino. The book is structured as a series of 10 parables that combine mythology and spirituality into messages of inspiration.
“I’ve given away more than 1,000 copies of the book over the course of my life,” White said. “And I still own the original copy I received from Dan Creely.”
Creely was not able to attend the Golden Gala to see White receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award, but he will be in the audience for his speech at Commencement.
“Tom excelled in all areas I observed him both academically and athletically,” said Creely, who served as White’s student teaching supervisor. “I knew his work habits, discipline and determination would make him successful at whatever he decided to do with his life.”
White’s success has stemmed, in part, from the intangible “it factor” that separates one from his peers, Creely said.
“Tom White has ‘it.’ He has always had ‘it,’ ” Creely said. “It was wonderful having him as a student and rewarding to observe what he has accomplished leading people in his life and career since he graduated from Northeastern.”
As one might expect, White does not consider retirement to be the end of his journey. Next up: After decades of concentrating his efforts abroad, White is focusing on poverty and education in the United States.
“We have to feed the kids,” White said. “If a child is hungry when he goes to school, how does he study? Or if he’s worried about whether he’s going to get dinner. We have to eradicate poverty.”
Top photo: President Sharon Hahs presents Thomas White with the Distinguished Alumnus Award during the Golden Gala on Sept. 17, 2016.