Wilson Roosevelt Jerman has died at the age of 91 after contracting the coronavirus, and while he wasn’t a household name across the country, he was an unforgettable presence to residents of one American household in particular.
Jerman was one of the longest-serving employees at the White House, beginning his 55-year tenure as a cleaner, ending it as a butler, and all the while bringing a sense of home to 11 different first families.
“Wilson started at the White House in 1957, during the Eisenhower administration, and he continued to work through President Obama’s term,” Jenna explained. “He was the loveliest. I think ‘lovely’ is a word that can kind of be overused, but … he was always smiling.”
In fact, it’s a word that seemed so fitting for Jerman, that even her parents, former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush, used it when they spoke about him after learning of his death.
“He was a lovely man,” they wrote in a joint statement to NBC News. “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.”
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And it was that kind ever-presence that left such an indelible mark.
“You know, it’s interesting because people will say, ‘Gosh … how was the White House? Did it feel like home?’” Jenna recalled. “And the reason why it felt like home was because of people like him. One of our favorite butlers, his name was Smiley, and we knew him when my grandpa (George H.W. Bush) was president. … I mean, I don’t think his real name was Smiley, but everybody called him Smiley, because he was always smiling.
"And right after my parents left the White House, he passed away. My sister and I went to his funeral, and Mrs. Obama was there, and she said, ‘I know what you mean now.’ ... We had told, when we’d shown the girls and Mrs. Obama around the White House, we said, ‘Meet these people. They will be your family. You will love them.’"
Jenna's voice cracked as she thought back to the moment.
“When we talked to (Mrs. Obama), she said, ‘I know what you mean. Smiley made my girls feel like this place was a home,’” Jenna continued. “And Mr. Jerman did that in tenfold.”
In closing, she added, “We loved him. He was beloved by my family, and he will be so missed.”