Sometimes the best rewards in life can come from unexpected places. For Paul White, owner of Roth Cleaners in Midland, MI., bad circumstances have often lead him in an ultimately positive direction.
Two key moments in his life occurred when he broke his neck and when he discovered his second son, Adam, had Down’s Syndrome. In both cases, Paul looked at the bright side.
Then there was the time Paul broke his neck while ice skating. His fall was similar to the one that paralyzed Christopher Reeve.
“I started losing [the feeling in] my left arm and my left hand,” he recalled. “They did emergency surgery on Sunday and saved my life.”
As a result, Paul could not drive and stayed home for weeks. For a guy who keeps busy running a demanding drycleaning plant, it could have been torture. Instead, it was bliss.
“At the time, our third son, John, was in kindergarten. He had half days,” Paul explained. “He got home every day at noon and guess who was there to greet him? Me. That was some of my most special time with him that I will just never forget.”
Long before his wife and children became the center of his life, Paul’s family excelled at drycleaning dating back to his grandfather Edward “Ted” White.
The elder White passed along his skills to both sons, Paul’s uncle, who was nicknamed “Bob,” and his father, Warren, who went by “Duke” ever since he dressed up in nice clothes as a young boy and waited for his father to come home from work.
In 1977, Duke bought Roth Cleaners which had originally started in 1929. According to Paul, his father’s vision for the company was simple.
“My dad said our goal is not be everything to everyone,” he recalled. “But the people we serve, we are going to serve them better than anyone else. There are people who are driven by price and we are not a good fit for them. Fortunately, there are enough people out there that feel we are the best value and are very loyal to us.”
Paul started working in the industry when he was 12 and loved it to the point that he opted to come on board full-time at Roth when he was just eleven credit hours shy of a Bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.
“I love the drycleaning industry. Why? It allows me to be a servant,” he noted. “I love serving others. I think, in order to be successful in this business, you have to love serving others. It’s a privilege for us to clean people’s clothes and make them look nice.”
By 1985, however, Paul felt the family business was growing too slow and he felt a need to go out and conquer the world. When a friend invited him to sell janitorial supplies, he accepted.
He spent the next handful of years in a different kind of cleaning business. Though he was quite successful selling cleaning supplies, he was ready to come back to Roth Cleaners in 1992 and take charge.
During Paul’s absence, Duke had turned his own unfortunate circumstances into a positive situation. In 1987, he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was told to get his affairs in order because he only had about six months left to live.
“It was the business that allowed him to beat cancer. He would tell you that,” Paul said. “He was worried about my mom, what was going to happen to her. He was going through chemo and radiation but he knew when he woke up every morning that he needed to get into work and make sure that company kept going.”
Over time, Duke fought five different types of cancer altogether until he finally lost the battle about four years ago, over 20 years after his doctor’s original prognosis.
These days, Roth Cleaners has 18 employees and four locations, two in Bay City and two in Midland, where Paul has become such an advocate for the town that he has earned the nickname “Mr. Midland” from his fellow locals.
The affinity he has with the residents also stems from how he and his staff care about every little detail from start to finish in the cleaning process.
“I want one of the pressers who never typically would have face-to-face interaction with the customer to have the same amount of pride as the customer service representative who does have face-to-face interaction and is hearing someone say, ‘You guys do such a great job’,” he said. “I want them to know that the way they pressed that pair of pants is a direct reflection on them. Every single thing we do matters. Everything matters.”
Paul tries to apply that philosophy to all aspects of his life.
“I want to be the best husband I can be. I want to be the best father, best son, best neighbor, best community, best drycleaner,” he said. “I want to try to do my best in all of the different areas I represent.”
Clearly, the efforts have not gone unnoticed. In addition to calling him Mr. Midland, the local community has shown its appreciation to Paul and his family. Two years ago, the White family received a Heart of the Community Award for their passionate efforts to serve the community through volunteering.
While his wife Kim works as a packmaster (overseeing 700 boys last year) for the Boy Scouts, Paul has been a Mobile Meals delivery volunteer since 1992. Both were named as honorary chairpersons for Chefs for Shelterhouse, an annual Spring fundraiser for the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
“I think everyone has gifts to share. It seems the more we give the more that comes back to us, almost to the degree of tenfold. Another thing I’ve found is that the people who are doing the most never think they are doing enough. Giving back is a good business to be in,” he said.
Perhaps the most influential way Paul has given back was for a group he didn’t really give much thought until after his son Adam was born. It was then that he fully realized how much parents of children with Down’s Syndrome must do for their children.
“Two weeks after Adam’s second birthday, his pancreas stopped producing insulin,” Paul recalled. “He became a Type 1 diabetic. Kim and I went through diabetic boot camp. He’s been receiving five or more insulin shots a day since then.”
When Adam was six, Paul received a life-changing phone call from the Arc of Midland, an advocacy group with 33 chapters in Michigan that works on behalf of those with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
“Our goal is to help people live a similar type of life as everybody without disabilities so that they are included in their community, so that they have similar opportunities as anyone else,” he added.
For over 13 years now, Paul has served the organization in many capacities, including president. Over time, he moved from the local level to the state level, which deals with legislative issues for the developmentally disabled. Last February, he headed to Washington, DC, to take part in a White House briefing and was within ten feet of the president.
While Paul admits he leans more to the conservative side, he couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of patriotism when President Obama arrived.
“The room just erupted,” he said. “Political party meant nothing when he walked out. You realize this guy wakes up with the weight of the world on his shoulders every single morning. At that moment, you would do anything to protect him.”
Paul returned to Michigan with renewed optimism and a sense that the Arc of Midland’s efforts really do make a difference.
Paul and his family will be heading to Washington, DC, again soon and may have another opportunity to see the president, though for a different reason.
Paul and Kim will be receiving an Angels in Adoption Award for adopting their latest son, Eric, the child of a woman with developmental disabilities. Unfortunately, the two had lived in an abusive situation. Once they broke free, it became clear that Eric’s mother lacked the abilities to raise her child by herself.
“It was a very difficult and challenging process,” Paul noted. It took over two years to become official. “I like to say that God made him our son on March 4 of 2010. The state of Michigan decided to honor God’s choice on March 5 of 2012.”
As a result, the judge who handled the case nominated the Whites for the award due to their tireless patience and efforts. They will be honored in mid-September along with other recipients, including Katherine Heigl of Grey’s Anatomy and her husband musician Josh Kelley.
“I can’t believe how many good things come to our family,” Paul said. “We tend not to like awards because I don’t know that we feel worthy. The only reason we’ll embrace receiving an award is it typically provides us with an opportunity to inspire and encourage others.”
The irony is that most people who meet Paul seem to be all too willing to thrust low expectations on him.
“Visually, they think: ‘This guy can’t do anything’,” he said. “It’s great when people have such low expectations. Typically, I can meet them and sometimes even exceed them. My biggest thing is… if I can do it, you can do it, too.”