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White House Butler Eugene Allen Witnesses Swearing-In

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009; C01

Eugene Allen, who worked for more than three decades as a White House butler -- some of those years during an era of brutal segregation when he often had to use back doors despite his employer's rarefied address -- sat in the shadow of the Capitol dome yesterday and watched Barack Obama become the first African American president of the United States.

"I never would have believed it," Allen said, sitting in an invitation-only area. He wore a black cashmere coat purchased for the occasion, a checkered scarf and a Sinatra fedora. "In the 1940s and 1950s, there were so many things in America you just couldn't do. You wouldn't even dream that you could dream of a moment like this."

Allen received his invitation from the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies after The Washington Post published an article about him after Obama's election victory. The report chronicled Allen's White House career, which began during the Truman administration and ended during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and also told of his 65-year-long marriage to Helene. The couple had discussed plans to go vote for Obama together, but a day before the election, Helene, 86, died in her sleep. On Election Day, Allen went to his voting precinct alone.

The invitation to the swearing-in surprised him. "I've served a lot of presidents," he said, "but I've never been to an inauguration."

Allen, accompanied by his son, Charles, and Charles's wife, Ortaciana, was part of a historic crowd, estimated at well more than 1 million. "You have millions of people, like my father, who toiled and went unrecognized," said Charles Allen, 62. "He gave the first families his very best. And yet, he saw my mother go to Woodward & Lothrop where she couldn't try on a hat because of her color."

The son went on: "Now, in our family, we always thought he was extraordinary, and some of the first families thought he was extraordinary. But I don't think in his lifetime he expected this -- to be invited to a swearing-in."

"Amen to that," the White House butler said.

"My wife would have really enjoyed being here," he said as he waited for the official program to begin. Then, in a near-whisper, he added: "Yes, indeed, she would have enjoyed it."

A moment later, the voice back above a whisper: "We were so very excited and happy about Obama. Happy for him and his family."

And then some of the figures the White House butler had seen over the years on the job -- serving them tea or cookies or champagne at state dinners -- began to come into view.

"Oh my," he said, "there's Colin Powell."

"I knew that man right there pretty well," he said, nodding at former president George H.W. Bush, whom he got to know when Bush was vice president.

"There's Jimmy Carter," he said. "He's looking good, too. Took me with him over to Camp David once. When he came into the dining room there -- they had given me the day off when I went with them there -- he pointed to an empty seat and said to me, 'Who's sitting here, Gene?' And I said, 'No one, Mr. President.' And he said, 'Good, I'll sit right here by Gene.' "

Then President-elect Barack Obama came onto the stage. "That's the man," the butler said, nodding. "Whew. I'm telling you, it's something to see. Seeing him standing there -- well, it's been worth it all."

And then, in a moment upending the arc of American history, Obama was sworn in, becoming, before the eyes of millions and a White House butler, president of the United States of America.

On an uncommon day, a common man sat and stared: A butler who was on the job in the days President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to deal with the Little Rock desegregation crisis; who was on the job when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated (Jackie Kennedy invited him to the funeral, but he volunteered to stay at the White House to serve the meals after the funeral); who was there when James Meredith integrated Ole Miss; when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech on the Mall (the butler listened on the radio); when King was slain in Memphis; who traveled with President Richard Nixon to Romania; who has a painting by Ike hanging in his basement; who joined in on President Gerald Ford's birthday parties at the White House because his own birthday falls on the same day. A White House butler who never missed a day of work.

And when the 44th president of the United States finished his speech, Eugene Allen -- his eyes glistening, his son's eyes glistening, his daughter-in-law's eyes glistening -- said: "I've heard quite a few speeches in my life. But none like that. It was some kind of beautiful."

They rose with the masses and made their way across the frozen grass. Allen is 89 years old. There are assorted ailments. The cold weather is a terrible bother. And Helene is gone, though there are three wonderful pictures of her in the living room of their home just off Georgia Avenue NW: Helene and first lady Nancy Reagan; Helene and President Ronald Reagan; Helene and Eugene, both in formal wear, attending a state dinner as guests of President and Nancy Reagan.

Charles Allen was a couple of steps back behind his father as they walked toward the exits. "I don't think they make men like him anymore," he said of the White House butler, who adjusted his fedora, tightened his gloves and tenderly strolled into the distance.

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