The Many Adventures of Sidney Wilhite
Traveler. Entrepreneur. Philanthropist. These are a few words that could be used to describe Sidney Wilhite. A man of few words and multitudes of adventures and experiences, Wilhite shares his story as this month’s Bayou Icon.
Article by APRIL S KELLEY | Photography by BRAD ARENDER
It all began with hunting. As a boy born and raised in West Monroe, hunting and shooting became one of Wilhite’s favorite activities. He would hunt every day after school and any other chance he got. It was at this time that saving also became ingrained in Wilhite’s personality. He would save up every tiny bit of money he could to buy single gun shells because at the time he could not afford an entire box.
As a teenager, Wilhite began recycling, a habit that would become a vital template for his company. A self-proclaimed ladies’ man, Wilhite played football at West Monroe High School, not because he enjoyed football but because he thought it would be a good way to attract girls. In order to pay for dates, Wilhite would drive around in his car and attached trailer hitch, picking up scap metal to recycle in exchange for cash.
After high school, Wilhite began the busiest time in his life. He attended college, joined the military and started a family all in the same time period. Wilhite’s mother really wanted him to attend college, even though it was not something Wilhite necessarily wanted. Keeping with his mother’s wishes, Wilhite graduated from Northeast Louisiana University, currently known as the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
“I got the simplest degree I could get. I had no idea what I wanted to do back then, no idea what I would become.” Wilhite said.
uring this same time, Wilhite also joined the US Army Reserve 95th Division with his cousin. “We, my cousin and I, joined the Reserve Unit before the draft. So we missed the draft, thank goodness,” Wilhite said.
Wilhite spent his time in the military training troops at Fort Polk and participating in shooting competitions with the 5th Army Division Rifles Team. He became a professional marksman. The money he won and saved from these competitions would become the seed money for Louisiana Plastic Industries.
After college and his time in the military, Wilhite began working at Adams Industries, an extinct plastic company, from which he was eventually fired. Instead of becoming discouraged, Wilhite took action, paving his own destiny. “When I got fired, it was a big change. I didn’t have anything except $3000,” Wilhite said. He decided to purchase a burn machine that recycled plastic with his saved earnings from the shooting competitions. This was the beginning of Louisiana Plastic Industries.
“A friend of mine was doing plastic in Beaumont, Texas. I bought the machine from him for 3000 bucks. I drug it up here, got it going and away it went. There was a tremendous shortage of plastic back then. If you had a recycling operation back then, you had your foot in the ground,” Wilhite said.
At first, Louisiana Plastic Industries was sort of a garage-business with only one machine. Wilhite would drive around picking up scraps of plastic off of the side of the road to recycle with his machine, much like in high school when he would pick up scrap metal. “There’s no such thing as scrap plastic. It’s money,” said Wilhite.
With a lot of hard work, however, the business started growing.
“It’d be hot as hell. I’d get out there. Sweat all day. Sweat all night. Get up in the morning and do it all again, till I finally got it going right,” Wilhite said.
Wilhite credits the entirety of his success to a book by Og Mandino called The Greatest Salesman in the World. This book was actually given to Wilhite by the very man who fired him from Adams Industries, prior to his Louisiana Plastic Industries success.
“This was given to me by the boy at Adams Industries that fired me. I didn’t really pay attention to it at the time but I started reading it close and applying it to what I was doing. And it does apply very well. I was able to start a business by using this book,” Wilhite said.
It is this book that taught him the fundamental characteristics of a lucrative and successful life and career, and he recommends it whole-heartedly to everyone. According to Wilhite, this book will lead to nothing but dreams fulfilled. “Read this book, you will get what you want. Read it a bunch of times. I promise you. This book got all of this – LPI, this land, this house. Seriously, you will be rich if you read this book,” Wilhite said.
Once Louisiana Plastic Industries became a household name, Wilhite returned to his oldest passion. He bought land in Mer Rouge, Louisiana, specifically for duck hunting. “That’s all it was, just a hole in the ground with water,” Wilhite said.
Over the years, he kept adding on to this hunting ground till it was a 10,000 acre farm.
Finally, after much time and profit, Wilhite began traveling the world. Traveling became another one of his coveted passions. He has traveled everywhere from Australia to New Zealand to China to Russia to Iceland to the Arctic, and he yearns to travel more.
As a boy, he loved stories like Tarzan that took place in the faraway lands of Africa. As he grew older, he became fascinated with Hemingway’s tales of big game hunting in The Green Hills of Africa. This, along with books by other big game hunters such as Peter Hathaway Capstick and Robert Ruark and novels by South African historical fiction writer Wilbur A. Smith, led to the over thirty trips he has made to the country. He claims that he did not become a true hunter until he began his voyages to Africa.
“The first time I took a trip to Africa, I became a professional hunter,” Wilhite said.
After apartheid ended, no one was sure what was going to happen to the country. A lot of people had lost their businesses in Africa. At this time, Wilhite was on a hunt and he came across some beautiful land. He went to a bar with the owner, made a deal and bought it. Wilhite bought some 20,000 acres in Bonwa Phala which means ‘the drinking place’ and started the Wilhite Safari and Outfitter Company of Africa. He stocked the land with game and had a staff of about thirty. It was a successful hunting outfit and safari. Wilhite sold this land five years ago.
Africa bred a big game hunter in Wilhite. He went on to hunt all kinds of big game, from the Grizzly Bear to the Polar Bear. His house is evidence of his skill, with the grizzly bear, the polar bear, dozens of ducks and deer displayed proudly as trophies of his hunting expertise.
His most difficult hunt was the polar bear. For ten days, he traveled via dog sled across the Arctic, staying in igloos and feasting on Spam. “The polar bear was the hardest thing. You froze. The tips of your fingers would freeze. If you took them out of your gloves for just a minute or two, they’d turn black,” Wilhite said.
When he finally killed the polar bear, Wilhite was so excited that he called his wife, Charlene, from a satellite phone to tell her about his triumph. “The whole thing took ten days, but I messed up and took my gloves off to call Charlene,” Wilhite said.
As an experienced and professional marksman, Wilhite never took to hunting with anything but a gun, often killing even his largest prey with only one shot.
“Normally, you’d be scared, but you’ve got a big gun. I always use a gun, a .375. Stick a bear in the ass with an arrow, then you’ve got real trouble,” Wilhite said.
Wilhite has traveled all over the place and ingested so much culture and cultural cuisine as well. From boiled moose meat in Russia to grubs and bugs in Africa, Wilhite has literally taken a bite out of life experience.
Not only did Wilhite test out strange culinary delights while traveling around the world, but he had many amazing experiences. He slept in the Kalahari listening to the lions in the cold of night. He enjoyed African music. He went to the Symphony every chance he got. One of his favorite experiences was attending the Russian ballet. He had not wanted to go, but his wife, Charlene, dragged him and he loved it.
“They are absolutely perfect,” Wilhite said.
Throughout all of his adventures, Wilhite kept a detailed diary of all of his hunts and trips around the world. “Botswana is the most beautiful country. You wouldn’t believe it,” Wilhite said.
Back here in his hometown, Wilhite has become quite the philanthropist over the years. He was one of the first individuals to ever donate to Monroe’s Chennault Aviation & Military Museum. He also funds two scholarships at ULM. In addition, he has also donated to the First Baptist Church of West Monroe, the church he grew up in. Wilhite also made sizeable contributions to various other schools and churches throughout his life.
Some of his largest contributions go towards the military through his purchases of guns, artillery and paraphernalia. He became borderline-obsessed with WWII. He devoured books like Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, visited military museums and continued to collect all the war memorabilia he could find.
Displayed around his television set in his living room are countless guns and other weaponry from WWII. There are also display cases with numerous medals and other knickknacks from the war as well.
Some of Wilhite’s first travels out of Monroe were driven by his love for all things military. He would drive to Vicksburg to go to the Vicksburg National Military Park, which he still visits frequently today. “I always went to Vicksburg, Mississippi. That’s where I started traveling. Back and forth, back and forth. I still go today,” Wilhite said.
His house is almost a historical monument to all of Wilhite’s passions. Many of his kills from hunting expeditions line the walls and walkways. Several ducks hang from the ceiling. The grizzly bear stands ferociously at one corner of his main room while the polar bear lurks on the opposite end. Animal skin rugs line the floor. And all of his war artifacts and weaponry are interspersed throughout.
Stepping into Wilhite’s house is like stepping into his world. With a wooly mammoth skull at the entranceway, one immediately becomes entranced with the life of this unique man before the speaking even begins. His house is a visual history of his entire life, and it feels the way one would imagine Ernest Hemingway’s or Hunter Thompson’s house may have been.
Wilhite spends his days reflecting on his hunts and his travels while planning more in the comfort of his one-of-a-kind home. He owns land and a home in Alaska, where he stays from May to September every year.
“It is absolutely wonderful,” Wilhite said of his Alaskan home.
Wilhite has also been philanthropic in Alaska as well, donating funds to his church, the Little Log Cabin Church of Alaska.
While grateful for all of his successful endeavors and opportunities, Wilhite cannot stress enough how important perseverance is for success in any field.
“Perseverance. That’s it. Don’t quit. Make your mind up, and don’t quit. That’s my advice to you,” Wilhite said.
Nowadays, Wilhite enjoys his quiet home life in his West Monroe home until his annual Christmas party.
Hundreds of people attend a Christmas celebration at his home on the second Thursday in December every year. With food and music and the largest and longest fireworks display in the area, Wilhite’s Christmas parties have become a legendary event. He has loved fireworks since he was a boy, and every year he tries to put on an even bigger and better show.
“It’s big, people line up on the highway to see it. The bigger it is, the better it is,” Wilhite said.
Wilhite’s sons, Ross and John Mark, have taken over the operation of Louisiana Plastic Industries and have made their father proud. Plastic has always been a family business as Ross and John Mark would often help Sidney pick up found plastic when they were young boys.
“We recycle big time over there now. They’re doing a better job than I was doing,” Wilhite said.
Without question, Sidney Wilhite has proven to be an instrumental individual in Northeast Louisiana. He put an entire company on the map, by working hard and developing it from a garage-business into a full-fledged corporation. He gave back to the community at every chance he could. From donating funds to hosting political fundraisers at his home, Wilhite supports his hometown region tremendously.
All of his travels and hunting excursions just add to the amazingly impressive and uniquely captivating person that is Sidney Wilhite. He is nothing short of a local hero who we can all live vicariously through. He has experienced more than most do in ten lifetimes, and for that, we can all be inspired.