Jimmy White has probably seen some of the world's greatest facial expressions. Lately, as communications director for the Maryland State Lottery, he has witnessed unrestrained joy, shock, disbelief, and euphoria, because that's how people react when you tell them they've won millions of dollars.
But for most of his career, White was privy to expressions of a different sort. As an undercover narcotics detective, he was there to see the face of unsuspecting criminals when the cuffs went on, when they suddenly realized that this tall, friendly guy wasn't, as they thought, their friend. He was a cop, and they were going to jail for trusting him.
Naturally, he prefers the kind of shock he inspires now. Specifically, he likes to walk into a restaurant with an enormous check. He prefers to find his victims when they least suspect it - eating dinner, working, or even just sitting at home - and shove a great big foam-board check right in their face. He tells a lot of stories about it, and he can't help but make himself laugh.
"One of my favorites was a couple of weeks before the Christmas holiday, he begins. "We had a subscriber winner, and with subscriber winners, we know they've won generally before they do."
"We went out there with Channel 13, knocked on their door, and told them we were there to test-market some scratch-off tickets, he continues, mischievously. "We went in and the director is saying, 'Do you like them?
Do you play the lottery?' The wife says, 'Yes. In fact, every year our priest buys us a subscription.' That's when we revealed the big check and said, 'You might want to tell him to hold off this year because you just won four million dollars!'"
He laughs, "There's nothing more exciting then being able to see a person in the moment they realize they've won a huge amount."
This 48-year-old father of one - an imposing figure who would be more intimidating if he didn't insist on you calling him "Jimmy, and he calling you "buddy - has gone from police spokesperson to director of communications for the Maryland State Lottery. Actually, he's gone from cadet to officer to detective to sergeant to lieutenant to captain to spokesperson. And now he's at the lottery, which might seem tame in comparison.
Granted, he gets to give out the big checks, but that's a pretty small part of his job. The rest of the time he's standing between stunned winners and eager reporters, or presiding over a televised drawing, or reminding people that "your chances of winning if you do buy a ticket are only slightly better than if you don't, so you'd better be playing just for the fun of it.
That message may sound odd coming from someone promoting the lottery, but things have changed. Six years ago, Buddy Roogow came aboard as the director of the Lottery and soon became uneasy with the messages they were using to sell it. "We were advertising things that were nearly unattainable as the main reason to buy lottery tickets, says White. Better, they thought, to sell the fun of the game, not the elusive prize. So they replaced the old tagline of "It Could Be You with "Let Yourself Play."
"We quite appropriately began to reintroduce the lottery to players in Maryland as entertainment, and not as a way to riches, not as an alternative to a hard day's work, or a good education, he explains. "And our ads and our promotional messages have followed. Lotteries around the country have followed as well. Roogow's epiphany is quickly becoming the prevailing logic in lottery promotion, evidenced by the abundance of slogans such as Delaware's "Catch that Lottery Feeling or Iowa's "Have Some Fun Already."
As for how White got into the communications game in the first place - or how he got from being a narcotics detective to spokesman for the Maryland Lottery - is as unorthodox a story as you'll hear in the industry.
Around the time that White was a lieutenant, a Fox affiliate in DC was airing a nightly show called City Under Siege, a Cops-style reality program in which a camera crew would go along on raids with White's officers.
At the end of the program, they would often interview the lieutenant about what was seized or who was arrested. Through sheer repetition, White grew comfortable with the role and made friends with the media folk.
So 10 years ago, when nobody else wanted to be commander of the press information office, the chief of police called on White, who, word had it, wasn't scared of a camera.
He remained commander of that press information office until his retirement seven years ago, when he moved to another police department in Maryland and resurrected his role. He was working there when the call came about the lottery. "Someone who had known me at the Prince George's County Police Department knew about this opportunity at the lottery, and gave me a call to come up and interview, he recalls. "I've been doing this ever since."
1972: Joined Prince George's County Police Force as cadet
1992: Commander of press information office for Prince George's County
1995: Commander of press information office for Charles County Police
1998: Director of communications for Maryland State Lottery