News & Politics

Meet the White House Butler’s Boss (Photos)

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library recently agreed to house a host of photographs, letters, and other memorabilia commemorating the career of John Ficklin, the longest-serving head of the White House domestic staff.

Ficklin, seated, with his staff. Eugene Allen, the inspiration for the recent movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, is second from right. Photographs courtesy of Ficklin family.

John Ficklin met his first President in 1939, shortly after his brother Charles got the 20-year-old John a job as a part-time pantry boy at the White House—an elevator opened and there was Franklin Roosevelt. The son of a former slave from Rappahannock County, John Ficklin would go on to serve eight more Presidents and rise to be maître d’, as the top White House butler is officially known—often the first person the President or First Lady sees in the morning and the last person he or she sees at night. Ficklin’s personal effects from the time, says Duke Blackwood, director of the Reagan library, “offer a rare insight into the social and cultural history of a national institution.” Ficklin retired in 1983 and died the next year. Here’s a remembrance by Alan DeValerio, one of his former servers.

This article appears in the July 2014 of Washingtonian.