Wilson Jerman: Long-serving butler who made the White House a home for its powerful families

Presidents of both parties appreciated his service and he scrupulously guarded the privacy of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue residents

Michael Levenson
Wednesday 17 June 2020 13:00
Jerman worked for 11 American leaders
Jerman worked for 11 American leaders

Wilson Jerman started working in the White House as a cleaner in 1957, under Dwight D Eisenhower. But it wasn’t until John F Kennedy was in office that he got his first big promotion, to butler, thanks to Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline Kennedy.

“He had a very close relationship with Jackie,” said Jamila Garrett, Jerman’s granddaughter. “She trusted him with her children, and he would ensure they had everything they needed in the White House.”

In 1966, when Jerman’s wife, Gladys, was dying of lupus, Lyndon B Johnson flew his personal doctors to help treat her and sent lobsters and filet mignon from the White House kitchen to the family’s home in the Petworth area of Washington.

Jerman, who served 11 presidents as a cleaner, butler and elevator operator, died on 16 May at Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Centre in Woodbridge, Virginia. He was 91. The cause was Covid-19, Garrett said.

“Mr Jerman was a lovely man,” former president George W Bush and Laura Bush said in a statement. “He was the first person we saw at the White House when we left the residence in the morning, and the last person we saw when we returned at night.”

Wilson Roosevelt Jerman was born on 21 January 1929, in Seaboard, North Carolina, to Theodore Roosevelt Jerman, a farmworker, and Alice Plum. As a child, he had no shoes and walked six miles to school, Garrett said. At age 12, he dropped out of school to work on a farm.

Jerman moved to Washington in 1955 and catered for parties in Georgetown before being hired at the White House. He was intensely proud of his job, his granddaughter said, and he went to work every day perfectly groomed, with freshly polished shoes and suspenders.

“He never judged, he never complained, ever, because he went through so many tribulations,” she said. “He was the mechanic. He would fix your roof. Anything you needed – he was that person.”

Presidents of both parties appreciated his service and discretion. Jimmy Carter asked Jerman to work for him after he left the White House, Garrett said. He was also close to the Bushes.

Like many longtime White House staff members, Jerman scrupulously guarded the privacy of first families.

“I’d say, ‘I work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,’ and 99 per cent of the people don’t know where that is,” he said in an interview published in the The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House.

“They’d ask you, ‘What warehouse is that? What building is that?’” he recalled. “I’d say, ‘It’s downtown.’”

Stephen Rochon was in charge of the White House residence from 2007 to 2011, when Jerman worked as an elevator operator for presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama. He called Jerman “the most gentle-natured person that I knew”.

“He tried not to converse that much with the presidents unless they asked him something,” Rochon said. “His job was to get them up and down to the different floors. But they couldn’t resist because he was so nice. They couldn’t resist engaging with him and conversing with him.”

Jerman worked at the White House from 1957 to 1993, and then again from 2003 to 2012, when he retired under Obama.

“With his kindness and care, Wilson Jerman helped make the White House a home for decades of first families, including ours,” Michelle Obama said in a statement. “His service to others – his willingness to go above and beyond for the country he loved and all those whose lives he touched – is a legacy worthy of his generous spirit.”

Jerman is survived by four children, Joyce Garrett, Angela Davis, Linda Taylor and Christopher Jerman, as well as 12 grandchildren, Garrett said. A fifth child, Dennis Jerman, died in 2011.

In her memoir Becoming, the former first lady featured a photo of Jerman, wearing a white bow tie, in the White House elevator with her and her husband.

“He was so proud to work for them and so happy to see a person of colour as president,” Garrett said. “He never ever thought that in his time at the White House he would see something like that.”

Wilson Jerman, White House butler, born 21 January 1929, died 16 May 2020

© The New York Times

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