Meet Charlie White, the Redskins Usher
"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 pre-game perches over the years: in a FedEx Field end zone, at the bottom of sections 232-234 at RFK Stadium, at the 40-yard line at Griffith Stadium. By his count, skipping the two-and-a-half 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 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 on Sunday, but he was definitely the oldest usher. He got his first ushering job through his brother, Curley White, who 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 Northwest 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 Department of Defense, was drafted and shipped to the Pacific islands. He got married, went back to Defense, served in the 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?" laughed his daughter, Bunny Merkle.
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 was finishing our conversation. 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, passed away in 2007. I asked what she thought about his ushering obsession.
"She put up with it," he said with a smile. "I was working before I was married."
Before he had kids, too.
"I remember Sundays in football season, dad wasn't there," Merkle said with a laugh. "We don't know anyone that's done any one thing that long. All I can say is he must like it. I mean, you have to enjoy something to do it for 70 years."
"He'd sit me on the steps during Redskins game, always take me when Santa Claus was coming," remembered son Danny. "He's seen more live sporting events than anyone we've ever known. It's probably some Guinness Record Book thing."
White has seated blue-collar fans and celebrities, including, he said, Larry King, Lou Dobbs and a grade-school Daniel Snyder, with his father. When Joe Gibbs returned, he saw White in FedEx Field and asked, "you're still here?" Charlie was there for the Pearl Harbor game, Dec. 7 1941, and tells stories about Andy Farkas and Bob McChesney, Tony McGee and Doc Walker, Wayne Milner and Baugh. "Every one of the names you see up there, I've seen, the coaches and players," he said, pointing to the Ring of Honor. "I could write a book."
He's had some speaking engagements at local nursing homes, has appeared on a few local TV shows and has friends trying to book him for late-night talk shows to discuss his 70 years in the business. He sometimes gets rides to night games now, and he missed a game this year, going out of town with his family instead of watching the Redskins lose to the Giants in a heavy rain. "I didn't regret it," he said. "It was a lousy game." But he returned for the Eagles game, wrapping that towel around his neck after he forgot his scarf and sitting outside as wind chills dipped into the lower 30s.
"He's a piece of history," said Trish Wyson of Gaithersburg, one of a group of fans who come down to visit with Charlie before games. "I mean, this guy saw Sammy Baugh play. I think Charlie's pretty phenomenal."
"There's a point where if you're gonna live, you might as well enjoy doing what you want to do," Merkle told me.
"I guess it's passion; you know, cold, wind, snow, rain, he seems to be out there," said Danny, his son. "I don't see him stopping."
I asked White whether he was getting nostalgic as his 70th year around the team ended; "it's just another season, that's all," he said. And I asked him whether he wanted to come back for yet another year, which would kick off his eighth decade as a Redskins usher.
"Unless I'm too old," he said with a smile.
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