W. R. (Billy) White, Southern Baptist pastor and university president, son of Gibson and Kittie (Dorman) White, was born on a farm between Leagueville and Brownsboro in Henderson County, Texas, on December 2, 1892. Gibson White died eight months after the birth of William, and Kittie died seven years later. White was raised by his grandmother in Frankston. Sensing the ministerial call early in life-leaning toward the ministry at age eleven and preaching his first sermon at age fourteen-White was licensed to preach by the Saline Baptist Association at fourteen years of age and was ordained just before his eighteenth birthday. He attended preparatory school at Rusk Academy before enrolling at Baylor University in the fall of 1913. Illness, however, forced White to leave Baylor, bringing him to Brownwood, where he enrolled at Howard Payne College. He earned his B.A. from Howard Payne in 1917; following graduation, White enlisted for service in World War I and attended Chaplain Training School in Louisville, Kentucky. In September 1919 White enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned a Th.M. in 1922 and a Th.D. in 1924; he served as professor of missions at Southwestern from 1923 to 1927. He left Southwestern to assume the pastorate at the First Baptist Church in Greenville in 1927–28, and then at the First Baptist Church in Lubbock in 1928–29. White entered denominational service in 1929 as executive secretary of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, but he returned to the pastorate in 1931, serving four years at Fort Worth's Broadway Baptist and five years at the First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. While in Oklahoma City, he served as director of Oklahoma Baptist University. White was elected president of Hardin-Simmons University in 1940, serving three years. It was during his tenure that Hardin-Simmons established its current affiliation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. He resigned as president of Hardin-Simmons in 1943 to accept the position of editorial secretary at the Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville, Tennessee, citing a desire to pursue travel and writing. White returned to Texas two years later as pastor of First Baptist Church in Austin and served until 1948. He was elected president of Baylor University in 1948, a position he held until 1961, when he became chancellor of the university. He oversaw the postwar growth at Baylor-physically and in student enrollment. Baylor honored him with the position of president emeritus on March 24, 1963.
White's books include The Royal Road to Life (1938), Baptist Distinctives (1946), Broadman Comments (1946–48), That the World May Know (1947), and A Manifesto of Faith (1967). He was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, including D.D. degrees from Howard Payne College (1927) and Baylor University (1930), a Litt.D. from Hardin-Simmons University (1953), an H.H.D. from the University of Alabama (1957), and L.L.D. degrees from Bishop College (1958) and Baylor University (1970). He served as a trustee at Howard Payne College, Baylor University, Oklahoma Baptist University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Baptist Hospital of Fort Worth. He was a member of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board's Board of Directors, and he was a member of the Executive Board of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. White was a thirty-third degree Scottish Rite Mason, a Kiwanian, the executive secretary of the United Forces for Prohibition in Texas (1932–35), and a member of the Anti-Race Track Gambling League of Texas for one year. He married Edna Woods, his college sweetheart, on January 17, 1916. After her death he married Catherine West Tarwater on June 20, 1950. She died in September 1950, and he married Odera Mohr on August 28, 1971. White had no children of his own. He died on March 24, 1977, in Waco and was buried in Waco's Oakwood Cemetery.