When he was no more than 7 years old, John R. Myszka took apart his family's grandfather clock -- then put it back together. As an elementary student at a parochial school in Buffalo, he once rigged the bell to ring an hour ahead of time, sending the students home early and leaving the perplexed nuns fuming.
Even then, it was clear that he had a talent for anything mechanical -- and for anything mischievous. As the oldest of eight children and the son of a onetime bootlegger, Myszka (pronounced MISH-kuh) knew how to take charge and how to get out of tight spots.
He left Buffalo to serve two years in the Army, then came to Washington in 1940 to work at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. He later joined the Navy, where he spent six years in the bowels of ships as a machinist's mate.
He returned to Washington in 1948, where his jack-of-all-trades skills led him to the General Services Administration. After working at the Pentagon and the Executive Office Building, he moved in 1952 to what is truly an only-in-Washington job: White House building engineer.
Working under seven presidents, he was responsible for the plumbing, heating, air-conditioning and electrical systems of the White House and for any maintenance problems that might pop up without warning.
"I keep the president in hot water," he liked to joke.
Myszka, who died of a heart attack Sept. 8, four days before his 88th birthday, began his White House career under Harry S. Truman and retired when Jimmy Carter was president. In his 28 years, most of which he spent on the night shift, Myszka kept the White House functioning and kept his mouth shut, never divulging unsavory details about the residents.
"It's an honor and a privilege for me to work at the White House," he told the Buffalo Evening News in 1977. "When someone puts that much trust in you, well, you should live up to it."
He did tell his family that his favorite president was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who struck him as "down to earth" and a "very regular guy." In those gentler times, White House employees were practically members of the first family.
"We went there all the time," said Myszka's daughter Kathryn Abbate, who remembers playing on Caroline Kennedy's trampoline. "We went so much, to us it was like going to Grandma's house."
Each president had peculiarities and preferences. John F. Kennedy liked to swim in saltwater, which meant Myszka had to pour bags of salt in the White House pool every few days.
Late one night, after Jacqueline Kennedy opened a can of soup, she called Myszka for help in lighting the kitchen stove's pilot light.
"The president was relaxing, reading the paper, and she was setting the table," Myszka told the Buffalo News. "She asked me if I would mind stirring the soup. It was cream of asparagus."
On Nov. 22, 1963, Myszka was settling on a new house in Laurel when he learned that Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. He immediately went to the White House and didn't return home for days.
Thereafter, security became tighter, and some of the old informality was forever lost. Under Richard M. Nixon, the White House staff grew larger and more impersonal. Nixon even decreed that White House workers could not wear soft-soled shoes; their shoes had to resound in the halls, so no one could walk up to the president and catch him by surprise.
Lyndon B. Johnson gave parties that included the families of the White House staff, Gerald Ford sent birthday cards and Carter had thermostats lowered to 55 degrees.
When Pope John Paul II visited the White House in 1979, Myszka -- proud of his Polish heritage -- shouted a greeting in Polish to the pope, who answered in kind.
After retiring from the White House in 1980, Myszka kept busy with more projects than even he could count. He loved holidays and often rounded up neighborhood kids for impromptu parades and caroling parties.
After his wife of 34 years, Gertrude, died in 1982, he became a decent cook. Twice a year, he would grind 50 pounds of pork by hand to make kielbasa from a family recipe, spending a full day smoke-curing the links in a barrel in his back yard.
He reshingled his roof, repaired the plumbing, heating and air conditioning and did his own electrical work. He cleaned his chimney by lowering a brick inside a gunny sack down the flue.
He enjoyed a sip or two of George Dickel Tennessee Whisky, and his basement, which once held an electric train set and tools of every description, is still redolent of the cigars he liked to smoke.
If Myszka seldom had to call on anyone's help at either the White House or his own house, it was because, with his ingenuity and a lifetime of mechanical mastery, there was hardly a thing he couldn't do on his own.