Wilson Jerman White House butler
In an undated photo from the White House Photo Office, Wilson Jerman, a longtime White House butler, in 2004. Jerman, who started working as a cleaner for President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 and retired in 2012 as an elevator operator for President Barack Obama, died on May 17, 2020. He was 91. Image Credit: NYT

Washington: Wilson Jerman started working in the White House as a cleaner in 1957, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But it wasn’t until President 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 O,” 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, President 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 section of Washington.

Jerman, who served 11 presidents as a cleaner, butler and elevator operator, died on Saturday at Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center in Woodbridge, Virginia. He was 91.

The cause was COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, 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.”

Born in North Carolina

Wilson Roosevelt Jerman was born on January 21, 1929, in Seaboard, North Carolina, to Theodore Roosevelt Jerman, a farmworker, and Alice Plum. As a child, he had no shoes and walked 9.5km 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 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.

Guarded privacy

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% of the people don’t know where that is,” he said in an interview published in “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 on Wednesday. “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.”