'In the kitchen, the folks have always been black'
Gene Allen poured drinks for US presidents for 35 years, watching from close up as blacks moved closer to the centre of power, writes Wil Haygoodin Washington
FOR MORE than three decades Eugene Allen worked in the White House, a black man unknown to the headlines. During some of those years, harsh segregation laws lay upon the land.
He trekked home every night, his wife Helene keeping him out of her kitchen.
At the White House, he worked closer to the dirty dishes than the large desk in the Oval Office. Helene didn't care; she just beamed with pride.
President Truman called him Gene.
President Ford liked to talk golf with him.
He saw eight presidential administrations come and go, often working six days a week. "I never missed a day of work," Allen says.
He was there while America's racial history was being remade: the Brown v Board of Education desegregation case, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights Bills, the assassinations.
When he started at the White House in 1952, he couldn't even use the public toilets when he ventured back to his native Virginia. "We had never had anything," Allen (89) recalls of black America at the time. "I was always hoping things would get better."
In its long history, the White House - just note the name - has had a complex and vexing relationship with black Americans.
"The history is not so uneven at the lower level, in the kitchen," says Ted Sorensen, who served as counsellor to President Kennedy. "In the kitchen, the folks have always been black. Even the folks at the door - black."
Sorensen tried to address the matter of blacks in the White House. But in the end, there was only one black man who stayed on the executive staff at the Kennedy White House past the first year. "There just weren't as many blacks as there should have been," says Sorensen. "Sensitivities weren't what they should have been, or could have been."
Before he landed his job at the White House, Gene Allen worked as a waiter at a country club in Washington.
He and wife Helene (86), are sitting in the living room of their Washington home. A cane rests across her lap. Her voice is musical, in a Lena Horne kind of way. She calls him "honey".
They met in Washington at a birthday party in 1942. He was too shy to ask for her number, so she tracked his down. They married a year later.
In 1952, a lady told him of a job opening in the White House. "I wasn't even looking for a job," he says. "I was happy where I was working, but she told me to go on over there and meet with a guy by the name of Alonzo Fields." Fields was a maitre d', and he immediately liked Allen.
Allen was offered a job as a "pantry man." He washed dishes, stocked cabinets and shined silverware for $2,400 a year.
There was, in time, a promotion to butler. "Shook the hand of all the presidents I ever worked for," he says.
"I was there, honey," Helene reminds him. "In the back maybe. But I shook their hands, too." She's referring to White House holiday parties, Easter Egg hunts.
"President Ford's birthday and my birthday were on the same day," he says. "He'd have a birthday party at the White House. Everybody would be there. And Mrs Ford would say, 'It's Gene's birthday, too'!" And so they'd sing a little ditty to the butler. And the butler, who wore a tuxedo to work every day, would blush.
"Jack Kennedy was very nice," he goes on. "And so was Mrs Kennedy." "Hmm-mmm," she says, rocking.
The whole family of President Jimmy Carter made her chuckle: "They were country. And I'm talking Lillian and Rosalynn both." It comes out sounding like the highest compliment.
First lady Nancy Reagan came looking for him in the kitchen one day. She wanted to remind him about the upcoming state dinner for German chancellor Helmut Kohl. He told her he was well ahead in the planning and had already picked out the china. But she told him he would not be working that night.
"She said, 'You and Helene are coming to the state dinner as guests of President Reagan and myself'. I'm telling you! I believe I'm the only butler to get invited to a state dinner."
Husbands and wives don't sit together at these events, and Helene was nervous about trying to make small talk with world leaders. "And my son says, 'Momma, just talk about your high school. They won't know the difference'. The senators were all talking about the colleges and universities that they went to," she says. "I was doing as much talking as they were."
"Had champagne that night," she says, looking over at her husband.
He just grins: He was the man who stacked the champagne at the White House.
The butler remembers seeing both Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in the Oval Office. He was serving refreshments. He couldn't help notice that blacks were moving closer to the centre of power, closer than he could ever have dreamed. He'd tell Helene how proud it made him feel.
Gene Allen was promoted to maitre d' in 1980. He left the White House in 1986, after 34 years. President Reagan wrote him a sweet note. Nancy Reagan hugged him, tight.
Interviewed at their home last week, Gene and Helene speculated about what it would mean if a black man were actually elected president.
"Just imagine," she said.
"It'd be really something," he said.
"We're pretty much past the going-out stage," she said. "But you never know. If he gets in there, it'd sure be nice to go over there again." They've got pictures of Mr and Mrs Reagan in the living room.
He's got pictures of every president Gene's ever served on a wall in the basement. There's a painting President Eisenhower gave him and a picture of President Ford opening birthday gifts, Gene hovering nearby.
They talked about praying to help Barack Obama get to the White House.
They'd go vote together. She'd lean on her cane with one hand, and him with the other while walking down to the precinct. And she'd get supper going afterward. They'd gone over their election day plans more than once.
"Imagine," she said.
"That's right," he said.
On Monday Helene had a doctor's appointment. Gene woke and nudged her once, then again.
He shuffled around to her side of the bed. He nudged Helene again. He was all alone.
"I woke up and my wife didn't," he said later.
Some friends and family members rushed over. He wanted to make coffee.
They had to shoo the butler out of the kitchen.
The lady whom he married 65 years ago was buried yesterday.
The butler cast his vote for Obama on Tuesday.
He so missed telling his Helene about the black man bound for the Oval Office. - (LA Times-Washington Post service)