White House butler shares experiences at ROWC luncheon
By Shari Rosen
The one unwritten rule of working as a butler at the White House is never to talk to the president or first lady unless they speak to you first. Alan Devalerio, a contract butler at the White House from 1980 to 1989, shared this information and other humorous anecdotes at the Retired Officers' Wives' Club monthly luncheon held Tuesday afternoon at Club Meade.
"It was good, really good," said Daryl Releford, who owns Petals and Blooms & Tberries in Fort Meade's Exchange and was a special guest at the event. "[It was] exciting."
Devalerio, dressed in a gray suit jacket, said he was inspired to become a White House butler after he read the 1973 book, "Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies" by J.B. West, who was the head usher at the White House.
In 1979, Devalerio moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a career in political humor and began as a part-time banquet waiter in the Senate Hall on Capitol Hill.
Driven by ambition, Devalerio approached Claiborne Pell, then-senator of Devalerio's home state of Rhode Island, and told him he wanted to be a White House butler.
"It was a dream job," Devalerio said. "Imagine going to work every day and not knowing who would be at your place of work that day." Devalerio applied for a contract position at the White House. After five months, Eugene Allen -- the man who inspired the movie "Lee Daniels' The Butler" -- called Devalerio to tell him he had secured the position. The only caveat was that Devalerio had to quickly secure a tuxedo, which he was able to do after leveraging the importance of his new position at a local department store.
"I had no idea where I was supposed to go [the first day], so I walked through the front door," Devalerio said. "That was a mistake."
Devalerio described a number of events he worked on at the White House such as an outdoor Christmas party held at the end of the Carter administration. He creatively poured cocoa on his hands to keep them warm, but unfortunately ran out and missed his opportunity to serve cocoa to the Carters.
"I had worked myself to the point of whenever they needed an extra person, I'm who they would call," he said. Devalerio also recounted many celebrity encounters he had, such as the stars he met during President Ronald Reagan's oath of office reception held Jan. 20, 1981. "I was one of the first butlers out of the pantry when the guests arrived," Devalerio said. "It was an incredible array of Hollywood personalities." Some of these celebrities included Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon.
Devalerio also had the opportunity to work upstairs in the White House's family quarters. "It's totally different upstairs," Devalerio said. "[It's] much more relaxed."
Devalerio concluded his speech by talking about his mentor John Ficklin, who started working at the White House in 1939. Ficklin served tea to Jackie Kennedy when she returned to the White House on Nov. 22, 1963, just hours after her husband's assassination.
Devalerio's speach was followed by a question-and-answer session. He gave a straight-forward answer when asked who his favorite president was to work for.
"Most of my time was spent with the Reagan presidency," Devalerio said. "He was very likable."
"Another fabulous program," said Genny Bellinger, president of the ROWC. "A job well done."