Glenn E. White, Iacocca confidant, pillar of faith, dies at 93

Richard Burr
The Detroit News
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Glenn E. White, a former Chrysler Corp. vice president and confidant of former Chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca, died Sunday at the age of 93.

Mr. White, a longtime Bloomfield Hills resident, was the only corporate officer who was still on the automaker’s executive team a decade after Iacocca joined Chrysler as chief executive in November 1978. He spent 38 years at the domestic automaker, 24 of them as a vice president.

Chrysler Vice President Glenn E. White, who was a Plymouth Division general manager, stands with a racing engine in an undated photo.

“Glenn was a good and a very busy guy during Lee's early days at Chrysler. He did all the hirings and firings including, I believe, Lee's own contract,” said former Chrysler executive Bud Liebler.

“He knew the people involved and understood the personnel policies and how to get things done inside the company. Importantly, he could keep a secret. He earned Lee's trust and kept it.”

Friends and family also said Mr. White and his late wife, Ruth Evelyn, touched many lives through their philanthropy, faith and commitment to the Free Methodist Church. Mr. White had a calm demeanor that opened many doors.

After Mr. White retired as vice president of personnel, administration and development at the end of 1991, he still kept a hand in Chrysler matters by helping in March 1992 with the selection of Iacocca’s successor, General Motor Corp. executive Bob Eaton.

One of Mr. White’s proudest achievements was persuading Chrysler’s product development guru Bob Lutz to stay at Chrysler after Eaton was chosen as chief executive, said David White, one of Mr. White’s sons. The retired vice president convinced Lutz that Eaton was a low-key leader who would allow Lutz to have a high-profile role as president, he said.

The episode showed Mr. White’s close relationship with Iacocca even after he left the company.

“He was the only vice president who could walk into Lee’s office without being announced,” David White said.

But it didn’t mean he avoided the wrath of the fiery Iacocca. One time, Chrysler’s CEO wanted Mr. White to oversee labor negotiations with the United Auto Workers union, but the vice president refused, saying he wanted to avoid such a high-profile role, David White said.

Glenn E. White

Iacocca reminded Mr. White that he was the boss and could fire him, the son said, recounting his father’s version of the story. Mr. White responded by saying he loved working for Iacocca but still didn’t want the assignment. “You can go ahead and fire me any time you want because you already have made me a wealthy man,” David White recounted his dad as saying.

Someone else was selected to oversee the labor talks, but the individual reported to Mr. White, David White said.

Mr. White, who was born Aug. 21, 1926, began his business career at the National Bank of Detroit, but was interrupted by U.S. naval service in 1951-1953. He became a certified public accountant before joining Chrysler in 1953 and climbing the ranks. He was promoted in January 1968 to vice president and general manager of the Chrysler-Plymouth Division.

One of the achievements Mr. White took pride in was helping launch in 1968 the Plymouth Road Runner, an inexpensive high-performance car that caught on with younger drivers and won Motor Trend’s 1969 Car of the Year. “In 1969 the Road Runner is being imitated, to one degree or another, in record numbers,” Motor Trend editors wrote. 

Another coup was when Mr. White helped lure NASCAR driver Richard Petty back to the Plymouth racing brand after the legendary stock-driving “king” defected to Ford Motor Co.’s racing brand for one season. White won him back, and the “Petty Blue Plymouths” remained synonymous with victory on the stock car circuit throughout most of the 1970s — much as they had been in the 1960s. 

But being an auto executive wasn’t all fun. In August 1961, White was among 73 passengers and nine crew members who were on a hijacked Pan Am flight out of Mexico City that was redirected to communist Cuba instead of its original destination of Panama City, Panama.

Albert Charles Cadon, a French artist and New York City restaurant worker, commandeered the cockpit in Mexico City and subjected passengers to an 11-hour air piracy ordeal that included eight and a half hours on the ground in Cuba, according to Detroit News and wire reports. 

Passengers didn’t panic when they realized they weren’t headed for Panama, said Mr. White, who was then a Chrysler general auditor who was traveling with a colleague and would later become vice president for Latin America.

“Shortly after this wild man disappeared inside the cockpit,” he told The News, “I talked over how to seize the plane back with some other passengers, but we decided against it.”

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro ordered the plane released because he was “mortified” the hijacked plane had a Colombian envoy on board, according to wire reports. Cadon, who was protesting American support for France during the Algerian revolution, was arrested and charged by U.S. authorities after the plane landed in Miami. 

During his corporate career, Mr. White participated in many charitable pursuits by being a director of the United Foundation of Detroit (a precursor to the United Way), a trustee of Children’s Hospital as well as a board member of the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit and president of the Detroit Area Council-Boy Scouts of America.

Faith was essential to Mr. White, who was a lifelong member of the Free Methodist Church. He served on the executive committee of the Free Methodist Church of North America and at one time chaired Free Methodist World Missions. He held a variety of positions with the denomination’s Southern Michigan Conference and his home Ferndale church. 

Chrysler Corp. Vice President Glenn E. White is pictured in an undated photo.

He served nearly 40 years on the board of trustees for Spring Arbor University, a Christian college affiliated with the Free Methodist Church in Michigan, and was board president for 20 years. 

He served on a steering committee that helped bring the Billy Graham crusade to Metro Detroit in October 1976, according to the family. 

In retirement, he joined the “business as missions movement,” which was aimed at training corporate managers to combine their business interests with spreading the Christian gospel.

“Learning to mobilize business for God’s purposes is the future of foreign missions and is our responsibility in the emerging global economy,” he wrote for a business missions strategic plan.

As a result, Mr. White and his wife Ruth created a Free Methodist Church endowment to finance retreats for missionaries. 

“He lived modestly and gave away a ton of money,” David White said. 

Mr. White was known for inviting newcomers and old acquaintances out to lunch or dinner, especially after church. He would insist on picking up the bill.

He also was known for his easy laugh and love of playing golf. His children remember he never raised his voice to his wife and never smoked, drank or swore.

“To play golf and not swear is amazing,” David White said. 

Mr. White stayed in touch with Iacocca as a board member of the Iacocca Family Foundation, which finances research projects into finding a cure for diabetes. Iacocca created the foundation in 1984 to honor his late wife, Mary Iacocca, who died from complications of type 1 diabetes.

Mr. White was born in Grand Rapids and graduated from the University of Michigan with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration.

Wife Ruth predeceased him in 2010. He is survived by sons Charles (Carol), David (Nancy) and Nancy (Stuart) Bergsma, as well as nine grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.

Visitation is scheduled for 2-8 p.m. Friday at A.J. Desmond, 32515 Woodward in Royal Oak. The funeral is set for Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Ferndale Free Methodist Church, 1950 Woodward Heights in Ferndale with visitation at 10 a.m.

The family is asking that memorial contributions be made to Ferndale Free Methodist Church or Spring Arbor University.

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