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Longtime White House butler and friend of presidents dies of coronavirus

Former White House butler Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, shown here in 2004, died on May 16, 2020 from complications of coronavirus. He had served presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama.

TINA HAGER/WHITE HOUSE PHOTO OFFICE

By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: May 21, 2020

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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 coronavirus, 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, North Carolina, 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, Virginia, in 1952. Both were 20. 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.

Then 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.

Eisenhower was in his second term as president. 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 couldn't 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.