For more than three decades, Stewart Calvin Stevens Sr cleaned the windows, the doors and the chandeliers at the White House — and often a lot more.
“I cleaned everything . . . except the dishes,” said Stevens. “I cleaned all of the doors . . . the China cabinets, the wall sconces. . . . I cleaned everything glass at the White House except for what the president ate out of. ”
And when he was done cleaning, Stewart would occasionally slip out of his blue work clothes and into a tuxedo to check coats for those attending state dinners.
Stevens retired in 2002, but his mementos and his memories serve as a reminder of how much of the nation’s history was made by ordinary men and women whose lives intersected with extraordinary events.
The basement of Stevens home Upper Marlboro, a Maryland suburb about 45 minutes from downtown Washington, houses a collection of photos, letters and artifacts from some of the presidents he served. He also has menus — gold-trimmed — marking the seven state dinners he witnessed. Stevens, who is black, said his collection tells not just his story but that of change.
“I enjoyed checking coats at the state dinners because I got a chance to meet people like Sammy Davis Jr, Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Aretha Franklin and many others,” Stevens said. “My favourite was Sylvester Stallone, Rocky. He walked in the White House wearing a tailor-made tuxedo. I told him, ‘Mr Stallone, you look wonderful,’ and he said ‘Thank you sir.’ ”
Stevens, 74, has captured his recollections in a self-published book he co-wrote with his daughter, Lynetta Stevens Wright, titled “The White House Chandeliers: My Experience While Working for Seven US Presidents.”
One recent afternoon, Stevens reflected on his days at the White House and his regret that he retired before he could see the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, reside in the building.
Stevens was one of 13 children — seven girls and six boys — raised in the District. He made it to the seventh grade but had to drop out of school to find work to help his family.
In 1954, he joined the National Guard. (He had to get permission from his parents because he was underage.) He ended up being trained as a military police officer, advancing to the rank of corporal. But when he returned to the United States from Germany, where he had been stationed, he was unable to get a job as a police officer or a firefighter, Stevens said.
“I had taken a test for the fire department and the police department and passed both tests,” Stevens writes in his book, noting that there was a lot of racial discrimination in Washington at the time.
Stevens said it was critical to find work because he had just married. He and his wife would go on to have six children. His solution was to join one of his brothers in starting a window-washing service.
The two were able to get contracts with several companies in the area, and that helped them land a job one day cleaning the windows and doors at the Executive Office Building.
Their work got noticed, and Stevens got a temporary pass to work at the White House.
He had been there about six months when he spotted two chandeliers in Cross Hall, the broad hallway on the first floor of the White House. They looked pretty dirty, so he asked the building supervisor if he might clean them.
Besides, there weren’t enough windows and doors to clean to keep busy. “I wanted to do more and I really cared about how the White House looked,” Stevens said.
“I mixed up my cleaning solution and I worked on the chandeliers for about eight hours, polishing each crystal,” Stevens said. “When I finished and got down off the scaffold . . . and everybody else saw how the chandeliers sparkled like diamonds, the word got around.”
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That was 1969. He would soon be a full-time employee of the White House.
His days began at 6 am and often ran into late nights and weekends. It was the early-morning hours, cleaning the glass doors between the White House residence and the West Wing, however, that allowed him to interact with several presidents.
Most of the presidents were early risers, he said, and a brief, “Good morning Mr. President,” is what he would offer them as they made their start.
He never interacted with President Richard Nixon — he came to the office a bit later than the others — but Stevens was there to greet presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both George H.W. and George W. Bush. And they would all greet him by name. (It probably didn’t hurt that each day he wore a belt buckle with an abbreviated version of his last name: “Steve.”)
Stevens received many notes from the men who sat in the Oval Office, thanking him for his service. There are also many treasured memories, such as President Clinton offering him words of comfort when Stevens’s mother died.
There were lighter moments, too, such as when President Carter offered Stevens and a group working at Camp David glasses of wine. Friends questioned him as to how he could drink the president’s wine. “I said because he offered it to me, and you can’t refuse the president,” Stevens said.
Stevens career at the White House ended in 2002 after he missed a few rungs on a 12-foot-ladder while washing windows and tore a tendon in his left knee.
Despite rehabilitation and an offer to work in another capacity at the White House, Stevens decided to retire.
He is proud that in all his years cleaning the chandeliers, not one crystal was broken. He said the most challenging chandelier was in the East Room. “It has more than 6,000 pieces of Bohemian cut glass,” he said.
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