STAUNTON, Va. — The tin of cookies emerged from behind his desk, three dozen or so. They were dark chocolate-cranberry-pumpkin-maple. The pumpkin came from real pumpkins, which Joseph White had acquired by asking businesses in this marvelous downtown whether they still needed their decorative Halloween gourds. The cookies were delightful.
If White had brought a baked treat like this to the Redskins Park media trailer — which he did, week after week, year after year, during some of the craziest moments in franchise history — “I’d have to hire two guards to keep [reporters] away,” he noted.
But his new colleagues are a bit different than the ones he left behind in Ashburn. Three dozen homemade cookies here last days, not seconds. He’s given up on the idea of throwing parties centered around food. And when White takes his employees out for dinner, he can pay with a $20 bill and get change. “These people just don’t eat,” he said of the staff at Cranberry’s Grocery & Eatery.
There are other differences, too. The folks inside Cranberry’s aren’t glued to Twitter, aren’t surgically attached to their phones and don’t particularly care whether the Redskins opt for continuity or chaos this offseason. Which isn’t to say nothing changes here. On the day I visited the natural-food outpost now owned by White, he offered up a brand-new creation dreamed up by his staffers: Earl Grey rolls. Imagine a cinnamon roll dipped in bergamot oil, and served warm. They were delightful, too.
You might not know White’s name, but you’ve probably read his work or heard his voice. For about two decades, he was the Associated Press’s D.C. sports correspondent, the guy who asked the first question at most Redskins news conferences, the man tasked with describing Christmas Eve at FedEx Field for readers across the country. He wrote about Norv Turner and Marty Schottenheimer, about Steve Spurrier and Joe Gibbs, about Clinton Portis’s costumes and Sean Taylor’s death. He chronicled the return of baseball, the rise of Ovechkin and the fall of Arenas. He traveled to five Olympics, covered the National Spelling Bee as well as anyone has ever covered anything and was named the 2005 AP Sportswriter of the Year. Then he left, taking a sabbatical from the AP and buying a health-food store and restaurant 140 miles from Ashburn.
The sabbatical is over. White isn’t coming back.
How do you go from covering one of the NFL’s most chaotic franchises to selling local honey (“the greatest honey you’ll ever have”) and local kombucha (“you can feel the probiotics flow through you”) and an exclusive label of organic fair-trade coffee, while bragging that “there is not a drop of high-fructose corn syrup anywhere in the building”?
“After a while, you’re just ready for a new adventure,” White said as we munched on cookies and listened to classical music near a stack of local newspapers. (“7-Eleven Removes Gas Pumps to Allow for More Parking,” read one front-page headline.) “I was originally a theater person, then I became a radio person, then I became a writer, and now I do this. You move on to the next thing, because there’s another cool thing to do.”
I’m not sure if this is a sports story. Maybe it’s a media story, or a retail story. There’s probably more than a little wish fulfillment involved. But I do know this: The sportswriting business once had an allure of authentic characters, one-of-a-kind types you wouldn’t meet elsewhere, people you couldn’t possibly forget. I’m sure they still exist, but they seem harder to find every year. And I promise you this: You would never forget Joseph White.
What other sportswriter would pull over on his way out of Redskins Park, set up his telescope on top of his car and observe the four moons of Jupiter? What other sportswriter would bike to Redskins Park — and then keep his helmet on while interviewing Mike Shanahan? What other sportswriter would produce logic puzzles for other writers to work on during rain delays? What other sportswriter would leave the baseball stadium and immediately go camping; or build an igloo; or travel to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave for an annual birthday vigil; or present his media-room pals with homemade pumpkin-mint-chocolate chip cookies, or butterscotch pie, or treats made with handpicked mulberries, or a full barbecue feast brought back from North Carolina?
That one came after his father’s death. His dad had taught him that if he ever had spare change, he should do something nice for someone else. When he was tidying up his dad’s house, he found some spare change. So he brought back lunch for his friends.
On his last day covering the Redskins, the other reporters gave him a standing ovation.
“Joe really is one of a kind,” wrote former Skins beat writer Mike Jones, when I asked about White. “You could say that about a lot of people, but it really did apply to him, and his quirky ways were part of the reason why everybody liked him.”
“When I think of Joe, I think of a true original — a man who marches to a singular tune in his head,” The Post’s Liz Clarke wrote. “I think what has made him so beloved among fellow sportswriters is that unlike so many journalists, Joe rarely, if ever, complains and lacks the cynicism and pettiness that too often mars the profession.”
“We all find him endearing and gentle and down-to-earth,” former Washington Times writer Zac Boyer wrote, “but there’s also a quirkiness to him that warms your heart.”
“Joe will be missed because he’s simply a good guy,” wrote ESPN’s John Keim, “and because he liked to bake for us.”
If White didn’t act like everyone else, he didn’t write like us, either, glorying in the weirdest stories, the goofiest anecdotes, the most outlandish quotes. I always figured that’s why he reveled in covering every inch of the Spelling Bee, an event he has attended even after leaving the business. Turns out it was more than that.
“I felt like it was important to tell the stories of the Spelling Bee kids, because they get such a stereotype about them,” he told me. “Hey, this is an awesome kid who plays baseball and the violin and goes to public school — and these are the kids who are going to make a difference in the world. They’re going to be the doctors and lawyers and scientists and so forth, which is a whole heckuva lot more important than making a bunch of three-pointers.”
He didn’t dress like us, either. Former Redskins lineman Stephen Bowen — who called White “F-Dot” because of his Freddy Krueger attire — once stopped an interview, looked at White’s sweater and asked, “What the hell are you wearing? Is that sweater from 1989?” White thought about it, and told Bowen the sweater was probably five years older than that. He recently told a friend that there are three things left he wants to buy — a new telescope, a straight razor and a pair of cross-country skis — “and once I get those three things, I’ll own everything I want.”
It’s a lifestyle that helped open the possibilities of a new business adventure. White, now 54, previously had worked as a country-music DJ in North Carolina, and for AP radio in London. Nearly two decades covering Washington sports was a long time tilting at the same windmill. By the end, it felt like he didn’t need to use his tape recorder anymore; he had heard the same quotes in 1997, and 2001, and 2005; heard rookies saying how happy they were to be in Washington and optimistic coaches promising a fresh new era.
His brother had lived in Staunton for years, and White and his son loved visiting the arts-and-theater town. So out of nowhere, he emailed the owners of Cranberry’s, asking what retail niches in the active downtown district still needed filling. They told him they were ready to retire and suggested he just buy their store. Many months later, he did. He took a two-year sabbatical from the AP but knew pretty quickly that he wouldn’t be going back.
And so, on the day I visited, instead of chronicling the melancholic end of yet another playoff-free Redskins season, White was rejoicing about a delivery from Blue Ridge Bakery, and getting change from the bank (“you’re awesome!” he told the teller as he left), and singing show tunes from “South Pacific” with a customer-turned-friend, and getting ready to make posters for that week’s trivia night. (Introducing a weekly trivia night was one of his first innovations as store owner. He writes the questions himself.)
When protesters gather in front of the nearby courthouse, he brings them free coffee. When staffers need a break, he fills in behind the register. His favorite thing about the gig is meeting new people: the backpacker from Finland, the random late-night shopper who became one of his new best friends, the Amtrak travelers who hop off the thrice-weekly Cardinal Route, telling him about their adventures and listening to his.
He’s trying to launch an “Amazing Race”-style event in Staunton, and a program to offer low-income kids a meal at Cranberry’s, and a show at the adjacent Blackfriars theater. Many of his staffers are into the city’s thriving theater scene; one directed “Doctor Faustus,” and another directed “A Winter’s Tale.” He’s embraced Staunton’s Harry Potter festival; “we definitely have to order more chocolate frogs this year,” he noted. On Thursday night, he hosted a Solstice Bonfire.
The store and cafe were already successful before he arrived, and he mostly tries to stay out of his employees’ way — “all I did was just hop on a galloping horse,” he said. So he waters the plants and changes the lightbulbs and designs the monthly place mats and tries to make the place feel like a home.
His mom ran a country store for more than two decades in rural North Carolina — that was his living room as a kid — and he wants Cranberry’s to have that same community-gathering-place appeal. He even made a replica of a sign that used to hang in her store. “You are a stranger here but once,” it reads. It feels like it.
“Why do I like this?” he said, repeating my question, as it snowed gently outside. (“It’s snowing!” he had shouted, when the first flakes appeared.)
“It’s a really cool place,” he finally answered. “I have really cool people working for me. I’ve got really cool customers. There’s not a day I turn that corner to come down here and look at the building and go, ‘Man, I don’t want to come to work today.’ I mean, there are times you could easily feel that way as a sportswriter — ‘Man, I don’t feel like going to practice today: It’s day 17 of training camp, I’d rather be home with my family.’ There’s not a day that I’ve come here where I was like, what did I get myself into?”
He was talking about this general idea with Rob, his grocer, just the other day. They always banter about song lyrics and conspiracy theories and philosophy, and this time they were talking about how time is more valuable than money, because one is finite and the other isn’t. Why is that so easy to forget?
“You know, you don’t get moments back,” White said. “And I don’t know what the next adventure will be beyond this. Who knows?”
He’s having one now, though. Maybe stop in and see him if you’re ever in Staunton. Ask for the Earl Grey rolls.
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