Jim Leonard Remembers Claire White, Recipient of the National Consumer League’s Florence Kelley Award



Jim Leonard, retired attorney with the US Department of Labor and a long-time colleague of Claire White made the following remarks at a ceremony celebrating her life on September 10, 2016:

The most important thing about Claire White, as I see it, and as I think all of you see it, if that you just couldn’t help loving her.  Her human warmth, her many kindnesses, and her amazing empathetic eyes were, to me at any rate, what most endeared her to all of us.

This gathering is a very emotional time.  But the emotion we are focusing on here is not our profound sorrow at Claire’s passing, but instead the pleasure we feel in recalling and celebrating her life.

Quite a few others will be talking today about Claire, so I want to keep my remarks short.  So here are two scenes from Claire’s life that some or even all of you may not recall or even know about.

The first scene dates from the late 1970s, when Claire came to the Department of Labor for a job interview in the Fair Labor Standards Division of the Solicitor’s Office.  I was the first person to interview her.  She also had interviews some other lawyers, and I did not have the final say on whether to hire her, but I was glad that we made her an offer and that she accepted.  Many years later, Claire wrote me a letter saying that she loved the “comfort level” and the “non-threatening environment” that she felt during the interviews.  However, she also said that as she got to know the staff attorneys in the office she was “consumed by the terror of feeling so inferior to the brilliant folks who surrounded me.”  This was a typically open and heart-felt expression of feelings that epitomized the kind of person that Claire was.

The second scene I want to mention occurred on October 6, 2005.  On that day Claire’s longtime stalwart advocacy as a Department of Labor lawyer, protecting child workers from exploitation, was recognized to the fullest degree.  She received the Florence Kelley Award from the Child Labor Coalition.  The award honored Claire – and here I quote — for her “commitment to social justice for consumers and workers” and her “vision, activism, and dedication.”  This was the first and only time that the Florence Kelley Award has ever been presented to a Department of Labor employee.  The Child Labor Coalition is a national network of advocacy organizations  formed to protect child workers from health and safety hazards.  Its members include not-for-profit advocacy organizations, unions, church groups, and many others.

Quite a number of Labor Department employees attended the award ceremony. Since this event occurred over 20 years ago, my memory is a little hazy, but my recollection is that Claire spoke with deep emotion at the ceremony about some relative of hers – perhaps her father or grandfather – who as a child worked as a “bobbin boy” in a textile mill in New England, long before there were any child labor laws.  These bobbin boys worked near the dangerous mechanical looms, in crowded and dirty factories, as much as 14 hours a day for six days a week, usually paid a mere pittance for their labors.

As I listened to Claire describe these bobbin boys, I thought how utterly fitting it was for Claire to have received the Florence Kelley Award, and to have spent so much of her professional life working to remedy the exploitation of working children that still exists in our society.

Claire is no longer among us, but the fond memories that we have of her will long endure.

Remarks by the National Consumers League in October 2005 when it awarded Claire White with its prestigious Florence Kelley award:

An appellate attorney at DOL, White argued Fair Labor Standards Act cases on issues including minimum wage, overtime, and child labor. She administered the national child labor program for 20 years.

“Since the Freedom Summer of 1962, when she taught in Mississippi and Virginia, Claire has fought for the needs of those who often can’t speak for themselves,” said Linda Golodner, the League’s executive director. “She has an impressive career and a lifetime of devotion to upholding justice and compassion, and we are proud to honor her with this award.”