White House but­ler Wil­son Roo­sevelt Jer­man, who died of covid-19, served pres­i­dents for decades.


The Washington Post - - METRO - BY MICHAEL E. RUANE michael.ruane@wash­post.com

When Wil­son Roo­sevelt Jer­man’s wife, Gla­dys, was dy­ing of lu­pus in 1966, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son sent steak and lob­ster to their row­house in Wash­ing­ton and asked his per­sonal physi­cians to help treat her.

When Jer­man re­tired in 2012, he had paint­ings of the White House in­te­rior signed by Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy and first lady Jac­que­line Kennedy hang­ing in his liv­ing room.

And af­ter he died May 16 of covid-19, for­mer first lady Michelle Obama sent out con­do­lences.

Jer­man, a long­time but­ler at the White House, was a man who left an im­pres­sion, his fam­ily said.

“With his kind­ness and care, Wil­son Jer­man helped make the White House a home for decades of First Fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing ours,” Obama said Thurs­day. “We were lucky to have known him. Barack and I send our sin­cer­est love and pray­ers to his fam­ily.”

Jer­man, 91, died at Sen­tara North­ern Vir­ginia Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Wood­bridge, his fam­ily said. He had served pres­i­dents from Dwight D. Eisen­hower to Barack Obama.

One of four chil­dren of a farm­worker, Jer­man had grown up so poor in ru­ral Se­aboard, N.C., that he had to put card­board in his shoes when they wore out. He left school af­ter sev­enth grade to help sup­port his fam­ily.

But with dili­gence, dis­cre­tion and grace he rose to spend much of his life as a wit­ness to his­tory at the cen­ter of power in Wash­ing­ton.

He and Gla­dys were mar­ried in Em­po­ria, Va., in 1952. He even­tu­ally made his way to Wash­ing­ton and found work cater­ing for fam­i­lies in Ge­orge­town, his grand­daugh­ter Jamila Gar­rett said.

He brought his fam­ily to Wash­ing­ton and set­tled into a house on Sher­man Circle, in Pet­worth, where he would live for most of his life. He would of­ten walk the seven miles from there to his cater­ing jobs in Ge­orge­town, his grand­daugh­ter said.

In 1957, his best friend, Eugene Allen, who worked as a White House but­ler, asked whether he would like a job there. “Oh, I don’t know if I want to do that,” he re­sponded, ac­cord­ing to his grand­daugh­ter. But he de­cided to try it out.

Allen’s son, Charles, said Jer­man and his fa­ther formed a tight bond. “They watched each other’s back,” he said.

“My fa­ther . . . didn’t trust a lot of peo­ple,” Charles Allen said. “But he trusted Mr. Jer­man.”

When Eugene Allen died in 2010, Jer­man said of him: “When my wife, Gla­dys, died . . . he told me not to worry about a thing. I didn’t think I could get through that pe­riod, and he just took me by the hand. I’ll never for­get it.”

Charles Allen said peo­ple don’t re­al­ize how close the White House staff was with the pres­i­den­tial fam­i­lies.

“These guys, they en­joyed their work,” he said. “They got to see things. You had to be able to see things and keep your mouth shut.”

Eisen­hower was in his sec­ond term as pres­i­dent when Jer­man started out work­ing as a cleaner.

When the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion be­gan, Jer­man caught the at­ten­tion of the first lady, who liked him and pro­moted him to the post of but­ler.

“She trusted him with her chil­dren,” Gar­rett said.

“He al­ways talked about the im­por­tance of ser­vice,” she said. “The Kennedys, he loved them.”

When the pres­i­dent was as­sas­si­nated in 1963, he went to one of the rooms in the White House and wept.

“He felt like he lost a mem­ber of his fam­ily,” his grand­daugh­ter said.

But it was when John­son en­tered of­fice that a spe­cial con­nec­tion was made.

Jer­man of­ten told the story about how he made a mis­take set­ting the table for an im­por­tant White House din­ner. He had set a fork in­stead of a soup spoon at the pres­i­dent’s place, Gar­rett said.

John­son said he could not eat soup with a fork and asked who had placed the wrong uten­sil. Jer­man thought he was go­ing to be fired, but he stepped for­ward, con­fessed and apol­o­gized.

John­son was im­pressed. He brought Jer­man to the table, in­tro­duced him to the guests, and said, “He is in charge now,” Gar­rett said.

When Jer­man’s wife was ter­mi­nally ill, John­son sent him food and doc­tors. His wife was only in her 30s. They had five chil­dren and had been mar­ried 14 years.

Jer­man later re­mar­ried, Gar­rett said. His sec­ond wife, He­len, died in the 1990s.

“I never heard him com­plain,” Gar­rett said. “Never, ever. He would get off work, he would be so tired. Some­times he would come home and get a cou­ple hours of sleep and go right back to work.”

An­other grand­daugh­ter, Shani Ri­vas, said: “He spoke highly of ev­ery­body who was ever in the White House. He never talked about their po­lit­i­cal par­ties. He al­ways said how kind all of them re­ally were.”

In ad­di­tion to his chil­dren, he had 12 grand­chil­dren and 18 great-grand­chil­dren.

His grand­daugh­ters said he was a lov­ing and gen­er­ous man, and he also fixed cars and roofs.

And he in­sisted on proper table set­tings.


Wil­son Roo­sevelt Jer­man, seen in Au­gust 2004, died of covid-19 on May 16. He re­tired from his post in 2012.

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