By Emily Steves, Class of 2015
St. Bonaventure University paid money for a real, live criminal to speak to its Class of 2016, and with good reason. The 2012 All Bonaventure Reads selection, “In The Sanctuary of Outcasts,” details author Neil White’s sentence at Carville, a leprosarium-turned-prison in Louisiana, where patients with Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) shared their home with federal inmates. The freshman class joined in on the former check kiter’s adventures while at Carville by reading his memoir over the summer. (A “check kiter” is someone who writes checks from one account to the other to have money that does not really belong to him.) They joined White again as he addressed the class and the community at the Reilly Center court on Monday, Sept. 24.
White, a successful magazine publisher before he was caught kiting checks, spoke in a relaxed southern drawl of the people he had met at Carville and where they are today.
“I thought that Neil was a marvelous speaker,” said Jean Trevarton Ehman, chair of the All Bonaventure Reads Committee. “He had a personality and was comfortable around the group.”
He showcased his outgoing personality when he made a cellphone call to Pete (known as “Harry” in the memoir, a person with Hansen’s disease, and put the speaker to the microphone for the audience to hear. Applause erupted when White bid goodbye to Pete, saying, “I love you, buddy.”
Mentioned constantly throughout “Sanctuary” is Ella Bounds, a woman affected by Hansen’s disease who White sought for little words of wisdom during his time at Carville.
“Ella was much more important to me than I was to her,” White admitted. “Unfortunately, the very last time I saw Ella, she was beginning an early stage of dementia and I don’t think she remembered who I was.” Ella died at Carville in 1998. “I hope I did her some honor by getting a piece of how wonderful she was on the page.”
White entertained the audience with funny stories about the writing process of the book. He checked with his ex-wife, Linda (who divorced him in the midst of his prison sentence), to be sure she wouldn’t mind if he wrote about their personal lives. “She said, ‘No! I’d be embarrassed if you wrote a bad book!’” said White.
“We couldn’t have done better with what Neil White did,” said Ehman. Not only did White speak in the evening, but he also spent the day visiting two journalism classes, a business class and a Franciscan health studies class. “That kind of hit some of the big themes in this book of being a publisher, the business-ethics part of it (kiting checks) and the Franciscan health care students are our future doctors and so he was able to speak of the science of Hansen’s disease.”
White also had some words of wisdom for the Class of 2016: “You’re going to mess up. You’re going to make huge mistakes. Some of them won’t matter much and others will be devastating in your mind.”
White made a mistake by kiting checks, but his punishment had a silver lining. White found himself at Carville and, with help from Ella Bounds, emerged a better person.
And when somebody asks White if there will be a follow up for “Sanctuary,” his normal response is, “I hope I don’t have this kind of material any time soon.”
“We’re still kind of in the afterglow,” Ehman said of this year’s successful ABR choice.