Butler’s story: Speaker was White House butler under 3 presidents

Alan DeValerio recently served up abundant memories and savory tidbits from his years as a White House butler to a rapt audience at the Milford Senior Center.

DeValerio, a former contract butler at the White House under three presidents, was in Milford promoting his book, “A History of Entertainment in the Modern White House” (CreateSpace Publishing, 2014), and sharing his memories.

DeValerio is a trim, engaging man with no shortage of energy , humor or anecdotes about his White House years. Milford was one stop on a New England swing that included Newtown, Oakville and Ledyard, Connecticut, as well as Middletown, Rhode Island. DeValerio lives in Frederick, Maryland.

Everywhere he goes, DeValerio describes his White House job in three simple words: “It was fantastic!”

The road to DeValerio’s dream job was less fantastic than circuitous. After a string of part-time jobs, DeValerio said he decided in his late 20s to take his interest in writing political humor to Washington DC. There, he found few opportunities for budding independent writers.

To stay financially afloat, DeValerio parlayed his prior food service experience into a part time job as a waiter in the Senate dining room. There, DeValerio persuaded a legislator from his home state of Rhode Island to help him land a job as a contract, or part-time, butler in the White House.

DeValerio thinks his career path is still a good way into similar White House service today.

“For anyone aspiring to serve as a White House butler today,” DeValerio said, “I’d suggest first working for a local caterer to get that practical experience. Then, if you find yourself living in Washington DC, write to the White House Usher’s Office and request an application. It’s that simple.”

Of course a background check is required which, for DeValerio, was less of a problem than another mandatory condition of employment.  He was given mere days to procure a tuxedo for his new White House job.

But having satisfied all conditions, DeValerio was called to serve his first state dinner in December 1980. President Jimmy Carter had already been defeated by Ronald Reagan. And DeValerio said he helped serve some of Carter’s so-called “last suppers” largely to thank staff and friends.

DeValerio recalled one such event, an outdoor evening holiday party the Carters hosted in December 1980.

“At the President’s request, staff had erected a skating rink on the White House lawn, and Peggy Fleming was invited to perform. That evening was so cold, I poured hot chocolate from my serving station on my hands to keep warm. In fact, it was so cold, I saw congressmen with their hands in their own pockets!”

When President and Mrs. Reagan entered the White House in January 1981, DeValerio said they brought their own style of entertaining. The Reagans, though, also brought something else that was exciting — plenty of celebrities outside of the usual political circles.

“President Reagan had his first White House function on January 21, 1981,” DeValerio said.  “The first three guests I served were Vince Scully, and the entertainers Lou Rawls and Ray Charles.”

By the time the Reagans began hosting state dinners, DeValerio said the events already had evolved into a more intimate and European style of entertaining than had been the case under previous leaders, like President Eisenhower.

Under Reagan, butlers like DeValerio labored nearly all day readying the round tables with White House china, glassware and cutlery to accommodate each of the four dinner courses.

“We’d start setting up at around noon for a 7:30 p.m. state dinner,” DeValerio explained. Staff also had to set up the pre-meal tea service in the White House Blue Room.

When he started working for the White House, DeValerio said the hourly pay was $10 for the first four hours of work. The hourly pay increased the longer the event continued.

Today, DeValerio noted, state dinners are pre-plated, although the importance of the butler staff has not diminished.

In addition to state dinners, White House butlers like DeValerio also served so-called “working luncheons” for the President and visiting heads of state. At such luncheons and other White House receptions, DeValerio recalled serving a huge variety of guests.

For example, DeValerio said he served the president of Senegal, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, singer Frank Sinatra, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, actress Maureen Stapleton, football great Frank Gifford, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko, and basketball great Bill Russell among countless others.

DeValerio also occasionally worked on the White House second floor, the President’s private living quarters. “Functions on the second floor tended to be smaller and more relaxed. One dinner I served there was hosted for German Chancellor and Mrs. Helmut Kohl. It was really an honor to serve as a president’s butler,” he said.

DeValerio said he left White House service at the beginning of the administration of President George H. W. Bush.

“I know the best part of my job was the people I worked with,” DeValerio said, including in that group the former White House matre d’ John Ficklin and White House butler Eugene Allen, who was the inspiration for the 2013 movie, “The Butler.”

“Working as a White House butler was really a dream job,” DeValerio said. “Think about going to work every day and anyone in the world could be at your job that day. It was a fantastic opportunity.”