Former White House employee who served 11 presidents dies of coronavirus at 91

Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, who began working at the White House in 1957, was "a lovely man," former President George W. Bush told NBC News.
/ Source: NBC News

A former White House butler who served 11 presidents has died at 91 after contracting the coronavirus, his granddaughter confirmed to NBC News on Thursday.

Wilson Roosevelt Jerman was one of the White House’s longest-serving employees, remembered fondly by former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush in a statement to NBC News on Wednesday.

Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, White House Doorman, Aug. 5, 2004.Tina Hager / George W. Bush Presidential Library

“He was a lovely man,” the Bushes said. “He was the first person we saw in the morning when we left the residence and the last person we saw each night when we returned.”

Former Secretary of State and first lady Hillary Clinton said that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, were saddened to hear of Jerman's death.

"Jerman served as a White House butler across 11 presidencies and made generations of first families feel at home, including ours," Clinton said. "Our warmest condolences to his loved ones.

Jerman began his White House career as a cleaner in 1957 during the Eisenhower administration and then was promoted during the Kennedy presidency, his granddaughter Jamila Garrett said. A meticulous man, but natural charmer with an easy smile, Jerman was one of the few White House staffers trusted to take the Kennedy children to different parts of the White House.

“Jackie O actually promoted him to a butler because of the relationship,” Garrett said. “She was instrumental in ensuring that that happened.”

To this day, a pair of paintings signed by Jacqueline Kennedy and John Kennedy hang in Jerman's Washington, D.C., home.

In addition to the close bond Jerman formed with the Kennedys, Garrett said Lyndon Johnson made sure that Jerman had what he needed to care of his five children when his first wife died.

Jerman also came to know multiple generations of the Bush family particularly well, Garrett said.

And even though he worked with worked with multiple administrations over the decades, Jerman never complained about the various personalities he encountered at the White House, Garrett said.

"He was always proud of his work, and that translated to us," said Garrett.

Garrett, who grew up with Jerman in a multi-generational Washington, D.C., household — including her mother, her sister, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents — said a table with full place settings was a part of every meal at home.

The way to set a table, the way to speak and the way to dress for different occasions were a regular part of conversations. Jerman's appreciation for the proper way to do things and the value of honest hard work are a part of his legacy, Garrett said.

"Even our parties at home looked like White House parties," said Garrett, "He would scallop radishes and make them look like swans. He would make animals out of watermelon scoops. He was very creative. Presentation was everything."

Jerman was, after all, a man who shined his own shoes every night and donned suspenders daily.

In the early 1990s, German retired from the White House. But he returned to work part-time in the Obama White House, an opportunity he treasured, Garrett said.

A photo of Jerman with Barack and Michelle Obama was included in “Becoming,” the former first lady's memoir. The photo of him in Obama’s book combined with Jerman’s overall legacy has helped the family cope with his loss, according to his granddaughter.

Michelle Obama, in a statement provided to NBC News, said Jerman "helped make the White House a home for decades of first families, including ours."

“His services to others — his willingness to go above and beyond for the country he loved and all those whose lives he touched — is a legacy worthy of his generous spirit,” Obama said. “We were lucky to have known him.”

Jerman stopped working a second time in 2012. That's when he truly retired.

Born in Seaboard, North Carolina, in 1929, Jerman began working at 12-years-old to help support his family, Garrett said. The work was mostly field labor on farms, requiring Jerman to leave school. In the early 1950s, Jerman became one of millions of African Americans who migrated north to major cities in hopes of better work, pay and living conditions.

Jerman arrived alone in Washington, D.C., and a short time later — after securing catering work on the Georgetown party circuit — brought his wife and children North to join him. At one of those parties, Jerman met Eugene Allen, a black man already working on the White House service staff who would go on to become head butler and the inspiration for the 2013 film, "The Butler." Allen encouraged Jerman to apply for work at the White House.

Jerman is survived by four of his five children, 12 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

“I want the world to remember my grandfather as someone who was really authentic,” Garrett told Fox 5 DC. “Always being yourself. That’s what he taught our family, that’s what thrives throughout our family. And that’s what we’ll continue to carry on, his legacy.”

CORRECTION (May 21, 2020, 12:25 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated who confirmed Jerman’s death. It was his granddaughter, not his daughter.

Peter Alexander contributed.