WESTMINSTER — A memorial service for a sports champion was about to begin. Arnold White, who was renowned in lawn bowling, had died. Many of the mourners, lawn bowlers themselves and thus of advanced years, filed into the bright chapel wearing, as is custom, the white shirts and trousers they bowl in.
For Paul Owen of the Long Beach Lawn Bowling Club, of which White, 66, had been a member, this was not an unfamiliar scene.
"We lose about three a year," Owen whispered.
But this one had been a shock.
White died of a heart attack June 27, the day before he was to have competed in a lawn bowling tournament in Santa Barbara.
"He was in good health, never had heart trouble," Owen said.
White's only trouble had been a couple of artificial hips, but he kept winning tournaments in spite of them.
Three U.S. Pairs Titles
His ability to roll the 3 1/2-pound "bowls" accurately on green lawns enabled him to win three United States pairs championships. He represented the United States in world tournaments in Australia three times.
White, a short man with a solid build, was a fixture most mornings at the Long Beach club in Recreation Park, where the sun keeps trying to bake the greens but never succeeds because of all the sprinklers.
He'd be there practicing, sometimes with Tommy Stirrat of Santa Ana, the little Scotsman who couldn't believe it when he heard the bad news. "He was always out there bowling," Stirrat said.
Stirrat, whose tribute to his dead friend would be a song, sat in the front pew across from the White family. He did not wear whites but a dark suit that concealed the "MOTHER" tattoo on his arm he got 50 years ago when he was a newly arrived, homesick immigrant on New York's Bowery.
Stirrat, 76, was like White--neither acted like old men in a sport that in this country has an old-man image. A former national champion himself, Stirrat was White's kind of lawn bowler: aggressive, lively, brimming with competitiveness, but never sacrificing the game's gentlemen's etiquette.
'This Is Boring'
Two years ago, while practicing at the Long Beach club, White had watched the other bowlers, who, except for Stirrat, were playing placidly, almost sleepily, and had observed, "To be truthful, this is boring."
Good shots that morning had been rewarded with silence, causing White to say, "No one's clapping," and long for Australia, where, he said, lawn bowling is played before bleachers packed with cheering fans.
But White had an explanation for the lack of enthusiasm: "They're old men. It's social recreation for them."
For White, though, lawn bowling was not a lazy game to help fill the void of retirement years but a highly competitive sport, which at the world-class level had a knee-knocking intensity most of the club members could never realize. One close friend said White was involved in the game every minute.
In the orange-carpeted chapel, under a spired ceiling and triangular windows of colored, flawless glass, about 75 men and women were now seated. Stirrat sat alone, distinguished in his suit and silver hair, then rose to sing.
'In the Garden'
Next to an altar that held two candles and an illuminated cross, Stirrat, his hands clasped at his waist, sang without accompaniment "In the Garden" in the rich voice he used long ago as a professional singer--not a baritone then, but a tenor--around New York City and Niagara Falls when he had a repertoire of Irish songs.
"He walks with me and He talks with me."
And at the end, Stirrat threw in a surprise. Instead of, "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, Dear sinner, come home," he sang, "Dear Arnold , come home."
A minister followed Stirrat and told the group what it already knew: "Arnold loved life and he gave it all he had."
But for all his vigor on the greens, White was hardly a hell-raiser away from them.
"He was pretty quiet, kind of an English trait I guess," Owen said. White, whose home was in Fountain Valley, was born in England and also lived in South Africa, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Long Beach, where he worked for the city Gas Department until he retired four years go.
"He didn't say a hell of a lot," Owen went on. "It wasn't that he was unfriendly. He was not the easiest person to get on a personal basis with."
Without a Partner
After "Amazing Grace," which Stirrat didn't sing, the Westminster Mortuary chapel people having piped it in, the mourners went out on the parking lot in the late afternoon sun.
One of them, in a blazer, was Keith Lance, 54, who was White's partner when they won the national championship in Florida in 1984 and who would have been his partner at the tournament in Santa Barbara.
Lance started to talk about his partner but the words didn't come out. He turned away for a moment, then said, "The best way I could describe him was he was a gentleman but he was a gentle man."