Q&A: John McCaslin, Rappahannock News

By |2019-05-23T17:02:52+00:00May 23rd, 2019|

John McCaslin (left) stands with Rappahannock County native Lillian Aylor, in front of the African American school Lillian attended during segregation. McCaslin wrote last week about how Lillian is assisting the state historical society with the wording of the historical marker that will soon be erected in front of the long-abandoned school.

Our Q&A this week is with John McCaslin, editor at the Rappahannock News in Washington, Va.

McCaslin talks to us about what makes the Washington, Va. community a beautiful place to live and even better a place to be a newspaper reporter, moonshiners, a house fire that won him a Best in Show photo award in this past year’s VPA contest, local papers partnering with nonprofits to produce investigative reporting, his book about a Bahamian drug lord and (believe it or not) more!

Please introduce yourself.

My name is John McCaslin and for the past two-and-a-half years I have been the editor of the Rappahannock News, its newsroom found in the historic town of Washington (aka “Little Washington”). Washington is ideally located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park — sparsely populated, unsurpassed view sheds, and teaming with cattle farms, artist colonies, wineries, distilleries, and wildlife. And, as the headline above a photograph in this week’s edition boasts, “Greener than Ireland.”

I began my journalism career 39-years ago in the Rocky Mountains of Northwest Montana/Glacier National Park, and Rappahannock County hands down is the closest place I have found in the eastern U.S. that is even comparable. Rappahannock County’s small but always lively county government, which is credited for enacting among the strictest zoning regulations in the country (how the county has managed to remain virtually unchanged since the Colonial times), keeps our small news team running, as do the thousands of visitors who arrive to enjoy our unsurpassed atmosphere and scenery. The print edition of the News (now in its 142nd year) is published every Thursday, and we are constantly posting enterprise stories, breaking news and photographs on our website rappnews.com, which also provides readers with a terrific e-edition.

What’s one way you think your location makes Rapp News unique in its own right?

The Rappahannock News is unique in that several its staff, past and present, have Washington, D.C. journalism roots. So, the News is quite uncommon for that reason, although it should be pointed out that we concentrate solely on local news. Our staff, at the same time, is extremely small — the publisher, the editor (read full-time reporter), a highly competent stringer who covers county government and courts, and a videographer who records government proceedings, both county and Town of Washington, the latter having its own mayor and council. In addition, we have several enthusiastic community columnists who write about the various happenings in their particular villages. All of which, you might say, puts us in the “charming local newspaper” camp — a camp that sadly is dwindling by the day.

What’s the strangest way you all have happened on one of your bigger stories and what was it about?

One of my favorite human-interest stories along those lines was from 2018, when I happened upon an old abandoned log cabin near Sperryville that was being dismantled that same day for its valuable logs of chestnut, which were destined for nearby Madison County.

Two of the construction crew hired to take apart the cabin came from Culpeper, a good distance away, and of all coincidences it turned out they knew the cabin quite well. One of the workers was 11 years old when his grandfather would set him on the path to the rustic log cabin “to pick up his medicine from Doctor Crop.”

“That’s the only name I ever knew, ‘Doctor Crop.’ My grandfather would say, ‘Go see Doctor Crop and get my medicine.’ We lived right over there,” said the worker, pointing south some distance from the cabin. “He was a scruffy old man. And it was always dark in here. It was scary. I would knock on this door, and he knew me of course, and then he would walk over and lift up a board and pull a gallon of ’shine out of the floor.”

Within time he reached the conclusion that Dr. Crop was no ordinary doctor and his remedy wasn’t entirely medicinal. But that suited the teenager, who by then was enrolled at Rappahannock County High School, just fine. “I would pull up here in my old ’62 Chevy, grab a bottle — underage — and my friends and I would go hike Old Rag. And let me tell you, it wouldn’t be long before I was preaching a sermon up there,” he laughed.

The other worker, who was tasked with rebuilding the cabin in Madison, similarly “got many bottles here,” although he didn’t know the bootlegger as Dr. Crop. “He went by several different names. I would always tap three times on the door so he knew it was me. He had whiskey, vodka and gin.”

It was the builder, in fact, who one night discovered a deceased Dr. Crop on his sofa.

I ended up tracking down the moonshiner’s elderly nephew, who still resides in Sperryville, and he gave me the rest of the intriguing story, which I published under the headline, “Moonshine and Memories.”

What still makes you want to work on papers after all this time?The same thing it was from day one, “The need to know.” I believe all of us in this industry have that in common. Not to mention nothing is as powerful as the written word.

I wanted to ask about the photo that won you Best in Show this year (see to the right). Can you walk us through how that photo came about, the story behind it and how you were able to capture such an intense moment? 

The photo “Staring Fire in Face,” like all spot news reporting and photography, took very little effort on my part. For background, my daughter was visiting from New York City and we were having dinner with some close friends who have a weekend home about a mile north of Little Washington. Just around sunset we were standing on their upstairs deck overlooking Shenandoah National Park when we noticed a stream of red flashing lights approaching a house probably a quarter mile as a crow flies down the mountain. When we smelled smoke, I headed straight for my car, with my buddy in tow.

Best in Show Non-Daily Photography-John McCaslin, Rappahannock News

I parked at the bottom of their driveway, given the numerous emergency vehicles filling the narrow country road, and we walked at a fast clip the rest of the way. Upon our arrival the home’s outdoor deck was engulfed in flames, which also burned along the fascia board on two sides of the house. Moments before our arrival, firefighter Nick Billups of Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue was moving from the deck with a pike pole what he thought was a log, but it was a gasoline can. The next thing you know, Whoosh!

What transpired was described by a first responder as a sudden and intense “flash fire — we hosed him [Billups] down and dragged him out.” Washington Fire Chief Ann Spieker said Billups “was like a human torch. He could have been severely hurt.”

When I photographed Billups he was lying on the ground being administered oxygen while having his vitals monitored by EMTs. Four days later he showed up at the newspaper office to introduce himself and grab a copy of the paper, where he was splashed across the front page.

Editor’s Note: Rappahannock News has a partnership with a local nonprofit called Foothills Forum. Together the two partner on long-term and in-depth reporting projects.

How do you think your partnership with Foothills Forum has helped the newspaper? Do you think its’s a model other smaller paper could adapt and use for success?  

The partnership with Foothills Forum is truly a model other newspapers should consider, if indeed their communities are able to emulate what Forum members and supporters have so effectively created here in support of the Rappahannock News, its readers, and the population as a whole. In short, the Forum has provided this newspaper with among others two or more seasoned reporters, a graphics artist, and photographer, and the resulting enterprise — multi-part, in-depth series on myriad important topics — have garnered attention and praise from local residents to the Virginia Press Association to the Columbia Journalism Review. Given the present reality of the Fourth Estate, there is no way that a smaller newspaper like ours could otherwise find the time to write so deeply and effectively.

You’ve been in the industry going on 40 years. What still makes you want to work on papers after all this time?

The same thing it was from day one, “The need to know.” I believe all of us in this industry have that in common. Not to mention nothing is as powerful as the written word.

Outside of newspapering what are some of your interests and hobbies? Anything someone might be surprised to know about you?

I love to travel (I used to write many travel articles for several publications), am an avid hiker with my dog in Shenandoah National Park and elsewhere, and never tire of taking nature photographs. Most of all I enjoy spending as much time as I can with my grown daughter, especially when off on annual trips together. As for any surprises, like everybody there are a few: I used to own a home on a tiny out island in the Bahamas, the setting for my last non-fiction book, “Weed Man: The Remarkable Journey of Jimmy Divine.” For anybody who likes a fun adventure story, with a lot of weed mixed in, this book is for you.

Can you give us the elevator pitch about the book and how you came to write it?

In short, Bahamian Jimmy Moree, aka “Jimmy Divine” as he never touched drugs or alcohol in his life, lived on the island with his Canadian-born wife. Jimmy had for many years in the 1970s and 1980s been the largest drug smuggler between Columbia and the United States, via the Bahamas. It is quite the tale. He was eventually indicted during the War on Drugs launched during the Reagan years (when I happened to be a White House correspondent, so it was intriguing for me to meet Jimmy all those years later). Everything in between is in the book. I recommend the hardcover over the paperback, which can still be found on Amazon.