White Has Ushered a City And a Team Through Decades
"I just lost a good friend," Charlie White was telling me on Sunday, about an hour before the Redskins' final home game of 2008.
White was standing where he always does, at the bottom of section 141, in the dream seats, wearing his FedEx Field jacket and a winter cap, a towel wrapped around his neck. The Redskins' longest-serving usher has had a variety of pregame perches over the years: in a FedEx Field end zone, at the bottom of sections 232 and 234 at RFK Stadium, at the 40-yard line at Griffith Stadium. By his count, skipping the 2 1/2 years he served in the Navy during World War II, White has missed fewer than a half-dozen Redskins home games since 1939.
Lately, he's been thinking a lot about Sammy Baugh, his all-time favorite Redskin and "good friend," who passed away last week at the age of 94.
"He was one of the best, if not the very best," White said. "I'm the oldest one in this stadium here that seen him play. Ain't nobody else."
I can't promise that the 86-year-old White was actually the oldest person in the stadium Sunday, but he was definitely the oldest usher. He got his first ushering job through his brother, Curley White, whom Charlie said was an assistant general manager in the team's ticket office. As a 16-year-old, he would take the streetcar from his parents' house at 3rd and C streets NW to Griffith Stadium, where he would work five-hour shifts to earn a dollar.
"A dollar was a lot of money then," he told me. "I had to stand in line to get the dollar. How well I remember."
The rest of his life unfolded, but Sundays with the Redskins never went away. He graduated from the since-closed St. Paul's High School, got a job at the Defense Department, was drafted and shipped to the Pacific islands. He got married, went back to Defense, served in its Office of Personnel, got a second job at Safeway. He had eight children, left D.C. and moved to Prince George's County. He ushered hundreds if not thousands of other sporting events -- the Washington Senators, the Bowie Baysox, Maryland football, basketball, soccer and lacrosse. He ushered concerts, too; "Can't you see him at the Grateful Dead?" his daughter, Bunny Merkle said with a laugh.
He retired from his other jobs, had 30 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. Eventually, he moved in with his daughter, stopped ushering for the Terps and cut back on his Baysox responsibilities. But every Sunday the Redskins were in town, he was there to show people to their seats and ask them to clear the aisles.
"Hey, out of the aisle please! Clear the aisle!" he yelled at a fan the other day, while I tried to finish our interview. The fan turned out to be Tanner Cooley, Chris's little brother.
"I'll holler at him, too. I'll holler at your brother," White said to Tanner.
"Harassing people since 1939," Tanner joked.
White's wife, Betty, died in 2007. I asked what she thought about his ushering obsession.