Saint Joseph turns 88: Meet the longest-serving statehouse reporter in America

Joseph Albright at his desk. Photo by Matthew Kassell.

DISCARDED PEANUT SHELLS LITTER THE SIDEWALKS of downtown Trenton around the entrance of the New Jersey statehouse, where Joseph Albright—the longtime octogenarian Jersey Journal columnist—arrives every weekday at 1 p.m. sharp. Albright carries the peanuts in a basket attached to his red walker; on most afternoons, after a couple of hours mingling with the reporters on press row and perhaps banging out a piece, Albright eases his way down State Street like a geriatric Johnny Appleseed, tossing the peanuts to plump gray squirrels who wait for their daily meal. Usually stuffed into Albright’s basket, too, are corn muffins and kaiser rolls for the local birds, along with a few cans of Friskies Prime Filets, a box of dry cat food, a bag of chopped-up hot dogs and a container of milk for stray cats who have grown accustomed to the lavish plates Albright leaves for them on a nearby public lawn.

Albright’s colleagues long ago began thinking of him as a kind of modern-day Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals (and, as it happens, the favorite saint of Albright, who is deeply Catholic). A lifelong bachelor who has always lived an ascetic life, Albright can often be seen blessing various objects and areas as he moves about the statehouse and its environs.

“I’ve never seen anybody genuflecting as often in the middle of the day as he seems to,” said Michael Aron, the chief political correspondent for NJTV News, who has known Albright in passing for decades. “I’ve looked out the window of the statehouse a couple of times when he’s walking into the building, and he’s often simultaneously genuflecting and feeding the pigeons.”

In a field proudly populated by weirdos and eccentrics, even Joe Albright—the last of a breed of charmingly old-fashioned newspaper reporters who would rather watch birds tweeting than stare at Twitter—stands out. His closest corollary may be the late, legendary New York Times reporter McCandlish Phillips, an evangelical Christian who often prayed at his desk and whose brave investigative work in 1965 brought down a Jewish Klansman named Daniel Burros. But Albright’s pronounced idiosyncrasies still put him in a category of his own.

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“I’ve never met anyone like him,” said Joe Donohue, the deputy director of the New Jersey Law Enforcement Election Commission and a former reporter for The Star-Ledger. Donohue is a friend of Albright’s who operates as a kind of caretaker, driving him to medical appointments and taking him out for meals, since Albright lives alone and has no immediate family in the area. “Sometimes he almost looks like a homeless guy walking down the street, depending on how he’s dressed that day,” said Donohue, “and yet people who get to know him realize how sharp his mind is.”

Albright has been working for the Jersey Journal as a contractor since October 12, 1964, a 53-year span that may make him the longest-serving statehouse reporter in American history. (There are no official statistics to draw from, though Donohue, who’s looked into it, says it’s highly plausible.) In 2009, the state Senate, in a rare nod to the press, passed a resolution honoring Albright for 45 years of service. “The funny thing is,” Donohue recalled, “he didn’t have a suit jacket, so he had to borrow mine when he went out to get the proclamation.”

Albright types up his weekly column, “Capital Clips,” which runs on Thursdays and mostly focuses on legislative developments as they apply to Hudson County, on the manual Smith Corona he acquired in the mid-’80s. He used to send his columns straight to the Journal via fax machine, which he refers to as “the grinder.” Now, after he’s finished a piece, he’ll tear out the page and mark it up with edits. A more digitally savvy reporter—which is to say, anyone else on press row—will scan and email it to Journal editors as a PDF. Then an intern will type it up and send it through the system for publication.

“His handwriting could use a little polishing, so sometimes you’re wondering what his edit was,” said Margaret Schmidt, the editor of the The Jersey Journal. Still, Schmidt is happy to accommodate what may seem like an inconvenient habit, given Albright’s unmatched institutional memory of statehouse politics (he’s seen eleven governors come and go) and his rather endearing personal qualities. “He always calls himself ‘Uncle Joe’ when he calls up: ‘Hey, Margaret—Uncle Joe. Can you check the grinder?’”

 

ON AN AFTERNOON IN EARLY FEBRUARY, Albright—who turns 88 this week—wheeled himself into his office at the end of press row on the second floor of the statehouse. It was a quiet Wednesday, not much going on. Albright had with him the usual basket full of animal food, to distribute later. Balanced on the seat of his walker was a coffee and a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich, purchased in the basement snack bar. He wore squishy black sneakers, gray slacks hiked up high, a blue plaid shirt and Bushmaster-style spectacles. His white hair was somewhat mussed, as though he’d just risen from bed. When he sat down at his desk, he plucked the day’s Philadelphia Inquirer from his walker, flipped straight to the sports pages, and began to read.

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Joseph Albright, the longtime Jersey Journal columnist. Photo by Matthew Kassel.

Albright has a special fondness for Philadelphia sports. His father, a Roebling machinist, studied engineering for a time on the Villanova campus, and Albright fell in love with journalism, as a third grader, reading Grantland Rice’s syndicated column, “The Spotlight,” as well as the local sports coverage in the daily Philadelphia Record. “I couldn’t wait till Saturday morning,” Albright told me, “to put the Record fresh out on the living room floor and read about Villanova football.”

That early infatuation with sports writing led Albright, who grew up in Trenton, into the field of journalism. As a mediocre student—bad at math, O.K. at history—he amused himself editing the sports section of his high school newspaper while covering the local basketball and track teams as a stringer for such newspapers as The Trentonian, The Times of Trenton, the Inquirer, The Newark Evening News and The Star-Ledger. He also wrote regularly for a publication called Bowling Weekly, for which he was not paid.

On the day he graduated, in 1947, Albright had planned to meet his “lady friend,” Irene, at the flagpole in front of the Trenton War Memorial.

“But she wasn’t there,” Albright recalled with an ambivalent shrug. “So I just walked down to The Trentonian and started working sports.”

When the Korean War broke out, Albright enlisted in the Navy. He spent about two years in Guam, where he became a news and sports editor for the Armed Forces Radio Service. He made the rank of Journalist Third Class, rotated to San Diego, served as editor of his base newspaper, and was honorably discharged a year later.

After a short stint studying in the journalism department at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Albright wandered south in search of a job. He reached Baton Rouge where, one afternoon, he made a date with a tour guide at the state capitol building. “Beautiful,” Albright recalled. “Hips swinging back and forth.” Before they could meet, Albright realized he was broke. He called his parents, who sent him money for a bus ticket back home.

Eventually, Albright landed a position as a sports reporter at The Philadelphia Daily News—a job, he says, at which he would have liked to spend the rest of his life. But he was let go on December 30, 1956, when the paper laid off 122 reporters. He moved on to Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle, where he covered fires, murders and drownings. He also served as the president of the local newspaper guild. “The battle cry then was ‘$200 a week,’” he told me.

Albright seems to think of himself as a journalistic journeyman, practicing his trade at whatever publication will take him in and treat him relatively fairly. It’s an old-school attitude, reminiscent of a time before journalism mutated into the nearly exclusive domain of the highly educated and the upper-middle class.

Albright hasn’t had a staff job since the early 1960s. He hasn’t had the luxury of company benefits for years, and for a long time went without health insurance. He doesn’t have a pension, and doesn’t get paid vacations. The last time he went on one, he recalled—with no apparent sense of indignation—was August 1968.

Albright left the Democrat and Chronicle in the early 1960s because of eye trouble. When he tried to return, not long after his departure, a friend told Albright that he had been blacklisted for leading a strike. That’s when he decided to venture out on his own, establishing the eponymous Albright News Service, a kind of one-man wire, at the New Jersey statehouse in the mid-1960s. “Lone ranger,” he said bluntly.

Through his news service, Albright wrote for a number of clients, including The Vineland Times Journal; a weekly newspaper in Toms River; and the Catholic Star Herald, the diocesan paper in Camden. But his main client was always the Jersey Journal—now a somewhat gaudy tabloid akin to the Daily News, but in the middle of the 20th century a handsome broadsheet—for which he originally began writing as a news reporter under contract for $135 a week.

Albright hasn’t had a staff job since the early 1960s. He hasn’t had the luxury of company benefits for years, and for a long time went without health insurance. He doesn’t have a pension, and doesn’t get paid vacations. The last time he went on one, he recalled—with no apparent sense of indignation—was August 1968.

 

ALBRIGHT HAS AN AWE-INSPIRING MEMORY, which serves him well, since he can’t consult a computer and doesn’t own a cell phone. “That’s the only thing that works in the office,” Albright told me as he pointed to an old rotary-style telephone.

His workspace, which he shares with reporters from NJ Spotlight, a local news and policy website, is cluttered with yellowed papers, old books and assorted antique items. There is a legislative manual from 1969. (“I used to need it back then, so I just kept it. No reason to throw it away.”) An encyclopedia of New Jersey published by Rutgers University Press is his main source for background information. “That’s a gold mine,” Albright said.

Affixed to a filing cabinet is a “George W. Bush For President” bumper sticker. Although Albright has been a registered Democrat all his life, he votes Republican ninety-nine percent of the time, he said, because he doesn’t believe in abortion. Still, he’s lost faith in Republican Governor Chris Christie because “he’s turned his back on the press.” Albright was referring to Christie’s so-called “newspaper revenge bill,” blocked by state lawmakers in December, that would have allowed legal notices to be published directly online instead of in print, decimating an already hollowed-out industry. “There’s hardly anybody here on press row now,” Albright mused.

At this point in his career, Albright doesn’t need to race around the statehouse collecting fresh quotes and sitting in on Assembly meetings. He’s never been known as a scoop hound, though the Journal, founded in 1867 and owned by Advance Publications, was once Hudson County’s political bible. With a straight face, Albright told me he hasn’t been to Hudson County since 1985, the year he began his column, which has a dry, no-nonsense tone that is refreshing to read in a news environment cluttered with hot takes and quick hits.

“He can write,” said Dan Weissman, a former longtime statehouse reporter for the Ledger. For a while, Weissman saw Albright, who used to walk to work and lived with his mother until she died in 1980, as an intensely focused wallflower who mostly kept to himself. But when a one-eyed mouse took up residence in a hole in the floor of Weissman’s office, Weissman and Albright struck up something of a relationship. “I was Joe’s favorite person in the world, because I used to feed this mouse granola bars,” Weissman remembered.

Occasionally, Albright’s introverted nature has been superseded by his frustration with a lack of transparency from the statehouse. In 2002, the year Jim McGreevey took office, “they were pretty stingy with info,” recalled Michael Symons, a reporter for NJ 101.5. One day, the state treasurer met with reporters to discuss budget details. The treasurer declared that the meeting would be entirely on background, which meant reporters would have to quote an anonymous official.

“People were rightfully annoyed by what they were trying to do,” Symons said. “And Joe, who’s been there for the thing, starts yelling, ‘Bush league! Bush league!’ And he’s yelling it over and over.” As Symons remembers it, the treasurer agreed to go on the record after Albright’s outburst.

 

NOWADAYS, ALBRIGHT ARRIVES at the statehouse more out of instinct than professional duty, though he does feel a deep sense of obligation to feed the squirrels, house sparrows and stray cats who have come to rely on him. He has been feeding squirrels around the statehouse since the 1960s; one afternoon after a lightning storm, he walked outside after an assembly meeting and found a dead squirrel at the base of a tree. “I felt so bad about it, I started feeding them,” Albright said.

At around 3 p.m., Albright began crumbling up the muffins and rolls he’d brought with him in a greasy brown paper bag, occasionally taking a bite for himself. He lifted himself up from his swivel chair, grabbed his walker and carefully made his way out of the statehouse, scattering handfuls of bread crumbs and peanuts around the entrance.

“Here they come” Albright said as the squirrels emerged, claiming their bounty. “They wait for me.”

At the end of a ramp, he stared off into the distance and began waving his hand as though he were calmly swatting away an invisible fly. “I’m blessing my friends,” he told me solemnly.

For the next hour or so, Albright wended his way, with a slight limp, down State Street toward Broad Street, in the heart of Trenton, where a public bus picks him up and deposits him back at his apartment near the local train station. He had time to spare before the bus came, so he made his way over to a deli to pick up treats for the next day’s rounds. Weaving through the aisles, he grabbed three bags of peanuts, a pack of jumbo franks, a box of Friskies Seafood Sensations, a couple of cans of cat food, some corn muffins, two loaves of white bread and a container of milk—all for the animals.

Before approaching the register, Albright stopped before a shelf. He scanned its contents and plucked, for himself, a single can of Campbell’s cream of chicken soup.

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Matthew Kassel is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has been published by The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, and Cosmopolitan, among other publications.