The baby backs at Rib Country in Hayesville, N.C. commanded full attention, so I confess my wits might have been elsewhere when the man with a white beard and baseball cap shoved me down the picnic bench.
The two other men at the table must know him, I figured, but they also seemed surprised. Then the man spoke and it immediately became clear.
You don't expect to run into an acquaintance in a country town 575 miles from home. But our delay in recognizing this man had more to do with his appearance, a dramatic departure from the starched uniforms, badge, gun belt and ostrich boots.
Bob White had added "retired'' to his title as Pasco County Sheriff only a few months earlier, leaving in the middle of his third term. He insisted his early departure had everything to do with family obligations and grew impatient with pundits and others who didn't believe him.
He took a vacation in the mountains — and ran into me.
We laughed about that on Friday when we met at the Panera Bread in Trinity. I hadn't seen White in more than a year, hadn't seen him quoted in news stories. Rumors of him accepting a big statewide law enforcement position from Gov. Rick Scott had long ago subsided. White, if anything, looked even more relaxed than he did that day at the rib shack.
He wore a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, flip-flops and a white Stetson. He had lost 15 pounds, trimmed the beard. And just as he did when he walked away from being sheriff after 10 1/2 years, he talked most about his granddaughter.
"Boy, I didn't see this coming,'' he said, "but this is the best.''
White and his wife of 24 years, Diane, watch Kaylyn five days a week while her mother, Amy White, goes to work as a detective in the Pinellas Sheriff's Office division that investigates crimes against children.
White ramrodded a department with 1,200 employees and an $85 million budget. He loved being sheriff. Now he gets more joy from a 2 1/2-year-old who calls him "Papa.''
He formed a company after retiring, Lonestar Strategies LLC, but so far he hasn't done a whole lot. He lobbies the Florida Legislature for CenturyLink, the nation's third-largest telecommunications company with headquarters in Monroe, La.
It still doesn't take much to get him going about the underfunded Sheriff's Office or the liberal media and its distrust of law enforcement. He defends firing several longtime employees at the beginning of his third term, even though they sued for age discrimination and collected $2.2 million in a settlement. He said those employees undermined his leadership. "I should have done it sooner,'' he said before adding to an already long list of "Bobisms":
"Divorces are expensive because they're worth it.''
White, who turns 62 in August, says he enjoys relatively good health. He had a heart blockage in 2005 but says his cardiologist is pleased with his recovery. Recently White gave up riding horses and sold his motorcycle. "My back can't take either,'' he said.
Every chance they get, the Whites enjoy camping. He recently bought a 35-foot Keystone Sprinter travel trailer, which meant he then had to get a bigger truck to pull it. On the side of that big white Dodge Ram is a green and yellow magnetic sign supporting Chris Nocco for sheriff.
This, of course, is no surprise, since Nocco had been groomed by the Republican hierarchy and White recommended him to the governor to fill his term. Nocco has had 15 months to show what he can do — and to enjoy all the other advantages of incumbency. White didn't go into it a lot when he retired, but he told me his wife was adamant that he not seek a fourth term.
"She said if (Nocco) runs against you, I'm voting for him,'' White said. "In law enforcement, we call that a clue.''
White says it doesn't bother him that Nocco is changing some policies and personnel. "It's his job now,'' he said. "I'll cherish my memories. I have no regrets.''