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Emeritus director of UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center Ralph de Vere White, M.D., dishes on his unexpected table-setting talents.
Hang up the lab coat; grab the table linens. For decades, that was Ralph de Vere White, M.D.’s evening routine. “My wife, Antoinette, would shop and cook and watch the kids all day, and I would come home late, thinking, ‘What could I do that might be of some help—and not muck it up?’” says de Vere White, who came to UC Davis as chair of urology in 1984, took over the Cancer Center as director in 1996 and retired in 2016. Setting the table was the answer.
This daily task turned into a treasured pastime that de Vere White seriously enjoys yet does not take too seriously. “Anyone can lay a table, I really believe that,” he says. “It’s not meant to look professionally done. A table is meant to lift spirits and serve as a backdrop to the evening. I just try to give it a different look and feel each time and make sure it sparkles as much as possible.”
De Vere White’s holiday table-setting process starts a couple of days before guests arrive. First, he considers headcount and where the children—his seven grandkids always have a place at the main table—will sit. Next, he places the mats according to his seating strategy, polishes the silver and arranges the glasses. “Then I put as many candles as possible on the table. I like using tapers, because you can fit more of them,” he explains. The finishing touch to the tableau is flowers. He procures most from the home garden and makes a trip to Trader Joe’s the day before festivities to supplement. “Then Antoinette comes in and moves things around,” he jokes.
The dining room has always been an important fixture in de Vere White family life, as Ralph’s parents often hosted dinner parties while he was growing up in Ireland. “I have wonderful memories of being at my family’s dining table, and I’m very conscious that our children and grandchildren are experiencing something similar,” he says. “I hope they remember it as fondly as I do.”