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Long White House tradition nears end for a family descended from a slave

By Juliet Eilperin,

The public and private rhythms of the White House have shaped John Wrory Ficklin’s daily life from the day he was born.

On Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Ficklin was 7 and playing at a neighbor’s house when his friend’s mother told him he needed to hurry home. At the time, his father, also named John, was the White House maitre d’ and very close to the center of the unfolding national tragedy. The next time Ficklin actually saw his father was on television three days later, in a rented morning suit, as the slain president’s coffin was carried into the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington for the funeral Mass.

The White House is a place defined by transients — presidents and political appointees who come and go after a term or two.

But Ficklin is a different, more enduring sort: He is the 10th member of his family — all children and grandchildren of a Virginia slave born in 1857 — to have worked in the White House, a long line that stretches back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. Ficklin’s uncle Charles got a job as a White House butler in 1939. His father, John Woodson Ficklin, born in 1919, joined the staff in 1940 and stayed for 43 years.

The long family streak may end with Ficklin, who retired last month just shy of his 60th birthday. But he was also the first whose work would range beyond the kitchens, pantries and dining rooms of the executive mansion and into the West Wing. Ficklin retired as a special assistant to the president and senior director for records and access management at the National Security Council.

His personal family and professional trajectory, from part-time pantry staffer to managing access to some of the nation’s most sensitive information, traces some of the profound cultural and societal shifts that have occurred in recent American history.

“The fact that in two generations you can go from slavery to special assistant to the president is indicative of the progress we’ve made as a country,” he said. “And I’m proud of it.”

Of course, it is an even greater indicator of progress when the president in question is also black.

“As a career employee of the White House, and also African American,” Ficklin said, “the president is what we had always hoped for but thought we would never see.”


Much of the Ficklin family lore at the White House centers on Ficklin’s father, who died in 1984, a year and a half after he retired. He developed the eggnog recipe that is still served at annual holiday parties. (The secret, he confided to The Washington Post in 1982, is to save a bit each year, dubbed the “mother of nog,” and incorporate it into the new batch the following winter.)

In some sense, Ficklin embodies this mixology, as if his father and siblings were able to flavor the institution’s current operations by installing a new generation of Ficklins in the place.

John Woodson Ficklin became a confidant to members of several first families during his long White House tenure. Bess Truman gave him the day off when his oldest son was born; Jacqueline Kennedy gave him a handwritten thank-you note for staying by her side in the assassination’s aftermath.

Over time, the family received plenty of presidential hand-me-downs, including Dwight D. Eisenhower’s monogrammed towels and a hat from Lyndon B. Johnson. Although the movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” portrayed Eugene Allen as the first member of the residence staff to attend a state dinner, that honor actually belongs to John Woodson Ficklin and his wife, Nancy, who attended one for the emir of Bahrain in July 1983.

In that generation, five Ficklin siblings ended up working at the residence while Charles and John were on the permanent staff. Their brother Samuel and sisters Mary and Flossie worked there intermittently. John Woodson Ficklin brought his wife and two children to work events on occasion, and two other relatives, James Jeffries and his son, James Jeffries Jr., continue to occasionally work as butlers to this day.

Flossie Malachi — John Woodson’s sister and John Wrory’s aunt — is now 90 and still lives in the District. She recalled that during one social event during the Truman administration, a butler at the time, John Pye, looked around the pantry and observed: “There’s a Ficklin here, and a Ficklin there. Everywhere I look, there’s a Ficklin.”


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