Mary Burns, 85; White House Operator Could Get Santa on Line

Former White House chief switchboard operator Mary Crowe Burns, front, answered the phones for seven presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, back center.
Former White House chief switchboard operator Mary Crowe Burns, front, answered the phones for seven presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, back center. (White House Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008

Mary Crowe Burns, 85, the former White House chief switchboard operator who answered the phones for seven presidents, died March 5 at Presbyterian Hospice in Albuquerque. She had Alzheimer's disease.

From the Truman through the Carter administrations, Mrs. Burns fielded the wacky, workaday and world-changing calls that came to the White House. She was an expert at tracking down anyone a president sought, no matter the hour or location. She connected Caroline Kennedy to Santa Claus, reached Margaret Truman in the mid-Atlantic and braved the ire of Lyndon B. Johnson when one of his calls was cut off three times.

"Sometimes you put calls through to the prime minister of Britain or the president of France, or just John L. Sullivan," she told a Newsday reporter in 1975, using the boxer's name for Everyman. "But you never really know that you're doing something historic until the next day, when you read it in the newspaper. We're really the last to know. But then, when we pick up the paper and see what it is all about, we say, 'Oh, that's why I was calling him.' "

Other times, she knew enough to make a decisive judgment. An anxious Cabinet officer in the mid-1960s asked to be put through immediately to the president. But Johnson had left clear directions: No calls. She quickly considered the time of day, the people in conference with Johnson and the state of the world, and put the call through. Johnson rumbled, "Woman, do I have to send you a memo? I said no calls." But Mrs. Burns held her ground, alerting him to the identity of the caller. He took the call with no further grumbling.

Leading a staff of 17 women and two men, Mrs. Burns was a prodigious worker, once toiling 40 days without a break. In 1977, shortly after Jimmy Carter took office, the switchboard handled 80,000 calls in a day, double the normal load of the time. The two previous peaks were Aug. 9, 1974, the day Richard M. Nixon resigned, when 102,000 calls came in, and after the death of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, when operators were too busy to count the calls.

Now, in the era of e-mails, faxes and cellphones, the weekday volume for the 14 full-time operators at 202-456-1414 averages 2,500 calls, a White House press office official said Sunday.

Many of the calls Mrs. Burns handled could be moved along quickly, with her soft but brisk greeting, a polite "one moment, please" and a pull and plug of the cords on a wall-size switchboard in the subbasement of the Old Executive Office Building. Other calls involved cranks: people trying to impersonate Cabinet officers, a woman claiming to be the wife of famous bachelor Henry Kissinger and angry citizens exercising their free speech rights. Operators had to be "part diplomat, part psychologist and part security guard," she once said. "It takes a whole year before an operator is really good."

Two of her finest moments came relatively early. Harry Truman, alone in the residence while his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret, were away, called the operator and ordered, "Get me Maggie." The daughter was two days out to sea, bound for Europe. But within 10 minutes, Mrs. Burns patched together ship-to-shore radio and telephone call. After the conversation ended, Truman called the switchboard. "No one has ever had such service," he told her.

Another such moment was when a 4- or 5-year-old Caroline Kennedy called and asked for Santa Claus. Mrs. Burns turned to a man in the nearby telegraph office who took the phone and, with a booming ho-ho-ho, stood in for Saint Nick. A few minutes later, a startled president called back to ask, "Mary, how did you do that?"

"Of course, my favorite person to call was Santa Claus," Caroline Kennedy recalled in her book, "A Family Christmas" (2007). "The fact that he had the same soft Southern accent common to many White House employees of the day escaped me completely."

Mrs. Burns, whose voice can be heard on the White House tapes kept during the Nixon and Johnson years, had nice things to say about every president. As an Irish Catholic, she had particularly warm feelings for Kennedy. Her niece Alice Jones said Mrs. Burns once reminded Kennedy not to miss Mass on a certain holy day. That day, she and some of her seven nieces and nephews "happened" to attend the same service at St. Matthews Cathedral, in a pew near the president so the children could get a good look.

A native Washingtonian, Mary Crowe graduated from Notre Dame Academy and went to work for Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone. She soon moved to the Treasury Department, and then to the White House in 1949. She retired in 1978.

In 1968 she married her childhood sweetheart, Allen Burns, and moved from the District to Bowie. Her husband died in 1999; they had no children. Mrs. Burns was a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bowie for 40 years and moved to Albuquerque 16 months ago.

Mrs. Burns traveled with several presidents as part of the mobile communications unit over the years. Even the irascible Johnson loved to call people, especially in the middle of the night. No matter that he blamed disconnections on the operators or disliked her decision to put a call through when he didn't want one, Johnson, it seems, much preferred the voice of a female telephone operator.

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