At Your Service, Mr. President
Alan DeValerio regaled an auditorium full of senior citizens with his tales from spending a decade serving as a White House butler.
He saw ice skater Peggy Fleming perform on a rink created on the White House’s South Lawn. He ran out of hot chocolate just as he was to serve a cup to President Jimmy and First Lady Roslyn Carter. He was in a White House bathroom at the same time as legendary entertainer Bob Hope.
DeValerio, for an hour, shared stories like these with those who attended his lecture, “At Your Service, Mr. President.” The lecture was part of the Oasis program at Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus. Oasis is a non-profit educational organization that offers lifelong learning, active lifestyle opportunities and volunteer engagement programs to adults 50 and older. Classes occasionally meet at the JHU campus in Rockville.
DeValerio, originally from Rhode Island, lived in Florida in the 1970s and was interested in pursuing a career in political humor. He moved to Washington, D.C., and realized quickly he needed a part-time job. Drawing on his experience as a banquet waiter in college, he landed a gig at the Senate restaurant on Capitol Hill. He then approached Claiborne Pell, the U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, and asked if he could help him secure a job as a White House butler. Six months later, DeValerio found himself entering the front door of the White House, tuxedo bag draped over his shoulders, and starting what would be a run through three presidential administrations as a contract White House butler. (And learning that butlers were not to enter through the front door.)
DeValerio served Carter at the end of his administration; Ronald Reagan; and George H.W. Bush.
In between refilling wine glasses, setting tables for state dinners and putting fancy chocolates in tins, DeValerio had his share of celebrity sightings, including Tony Bennett, Johnny Carson, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Itzhak Perlman. He said he was able to talk baseball with Yankees manager Yogi Berra and discuss “All in the Family” with actress Sally Struthers.
Sometimes, he was able to snag an assignment working in the family’s private quarters.
“It’s like living in a museum,” DeValerio said, reflecting on the great privilege it was to work there.
He entertained the Oasis crowd with anecdotes of his near-disasters, including when he almost spilled a tray of champagne glasses on President Reagan and his distinguished guests. “I know I lost at least five years off my life in that split second,” he said.
He made about $10 an hour working as a contractual White House butler; the rate increased for additional hours worked beyond four hours a day.
A couple of years ago, DeValerio wrote a book about his experiences called “A History of Entertainment in the Modern White House.”
Nearly 30 years after leaving the White House, DeValerio said he still has dreams he is working there.
“It was a dream job,” he said. “There’s only one White House. It was an incredibly unique experience.”
WHAT IS OASIS?
OASIS is a non-profit educational organization active in more than 50 cities and reaching more than 50,000 individuals each year. Its mission is to promote healthy aging through lifelong learning, active lifestyles and volunteer engagement. Locally, the Oasis center is located inside of Macy’s Home Store at Westfield Montgomery Mall and is sponsored by Suburban Hospital. Classes are held at the main center as well as in other locations throughout the county, including at the JHU Montgomery County Campus. Students may sign up for one or more classes, most of which are one-time lectures. Class topics include offerings in art, music, computers, health and wellness, history and current events.