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James H. Gordon Jr., 86

James Gordon Jr. Dies; Engineer Was Santa's Voice When Caroline Kennedy Called

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Monday, June 8, 2009

James Howell Gordon Jr., 86, a retired phone company engineer who helped develop and maintain the telephone infrastructure at the White House, the Pentagon and other government agencies, died May 31 of renal failure at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park. Mr. Gordon, a longtime resident of Takoma Park, was a 44-year employee of the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. and then Verizon.

Mr. Gordon, known as Jim, happened to be working in the White House telegraph office on a December day in the early 1960s, when the White House operator, Mary Burns, received a call from young Caroline Kennedy asking for Santa Claus. Burns, glancing about for the nearest available male, spotted Mr. Gordon, who took the call and embellished his end of the conversation with a booming ho-ho-ho.

"Of course, my favorite person to call was Santa Claus," 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."

Mr. Gordon was born in the District and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School. He volunteered for military service during World War II but didn't pass the physical, so he went to Canada and signed on as an ambulance driver with the American Field Service. He was based in Italy, and he recalled years later leaving his ambulance to pick up a wounded soldier and returning to see a bullet hole through the windshield where he had been sitting moments earlier.

He had joined the phone company as a lineman before the war and later worked as a phone engineer at the White House, the Capitol, the Executive Office Building and Senate office buildings.

He was at the White House on several historic occasions, including the first transatlantic phone call and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. During the missile crisis, he was responsible for making sure that the hotline was open to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and he stayed at the White House without going home for two weeks.

Mr. Gordon retired in 1985.

He was a volunteer with Alcoholics Anonymous for 35 years. "The phone never stopped ringing," his wife recalled. "I miss it."

A daughter, Judith Gordon Winokur, died in 1999.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Susanne "Sue" Frerichs Gordon of Takoma Park; two children, Kathleen Vaupel of Hague, Va., and Christopher Gordon of Riva; and four grandchildren.

-- Joe Holley

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