The public and private rhythms of the White House have shaped John Wrory Ficklin’s daily life from the day he was born.
On Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Ficklin was 7 and playing at a neighbor’s house when his friend’s mother told him he needed to hurry home. At the time, his father, also named John, was the White House maitre d’ and very close to the center of the unfolding national tragedy. The next time Ficklin actually saw his father was on television three days later, in a rented morning suit, as the slain president’s coffin was carried into the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington for the funeral Mass.
The White House is a place defined by transients — presidents and political appointees who come and go after a term or two.
But Ficklin is a different, more enduring sort: He is the 10th member of his family — all children and grandchildren of a Virginia slave born in 1857 — to have worked in the White House, a long line that stretches back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. Ficklin’s uncle Charles got a job as a White House butler in 1939. His father, John Woodson Ficklin, born in 1919, joined the staff in 1940 and stayed for 43 years.
The long family streak may end with Ficklin, who retired last month just shy of his 60th birthday. But he was also the first whose work would range beyond the kitchens, pantries and dining rooms of the executive mansion and into the West Wing. Ficklin retired as a special assistant to the president and senior director for records and access management at the National Security Council.
His personal family and professional trajectory, from part-time pantry staffer to managing access to some of the nation’s most sensitive information, traces some of the profound cultural and societal shifts that have occurred in recent American history.
“The fact that in two generations you can go from slavery to special assistant to the president is indicative of the progress we’ve made as a country,” he said. “And I’m proud of it.”
Of course, it is an even greater indicator of progress when the president in question is also black.
“As a career employee of the White House, and also African American,” Ficklin said, “the president is what we had always hoped for but thought we would never see.”
Much of the Ficklin family lore at the White House centers on Ficklin’s father, who died in 1984, a year and a half after he retired. He developed the eggnog recipe that is still served at annual holiday parties. (The secret, he confided to The Washington Post in 1982, is to save a bit each year, dubbed the “mother of nog,” and incorporate it into the new batch the following winter.)
In some sense, Ficklin embodies this mixology, as if his father and siblings were able to flavor the institution’s current operations by installing a new generation of Ficklins in the place.
John Woodson Ficklin became a confidant to members of several first families during his long White House tenure. Bess Truman gave him the day off when his oldest son was born; Jacqueline Kennedy gave him a handwritten thank-you note for staying by her side in the assassination’s aftermath.
Over time, the family received plenty of presidential hand-me-downs, including Dwight D. Eisenhower’s monogrammed towels and a hat from Lyndon B. Johnson. Although the movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” portrayed Eugene Allen as the first member of the residence staff to attend a state dinner, that honor actually belongs to John Woodson Ficklin and his wife, Nancy, who attended one for the emir of Bahrain in July 1983.
In that generation, five Ficklin siblings ended up working at the residence while Charles and John were on the permanent staff. Their brother Samuel and sisters Mary and Flossie worked there intermittently. John Woodson Ficklin brought his wife and two children to work events on occasion, and two other relatives, James Jeffries and his son, James Jeffries Jr., continue to occasionally work as butlers to this day.
Flossie Malachi — John Woodson’s sister and John Wrory’s aunt — is now 90 and still lives in the District. She recalled that during one social event during the Truman administration, a butler at the time, John Pye, looked around the pantry and observed: “There’s a Ficklin here, and a Ficklin there. Everywhere I look, there’s a Ficklin.”
John Wrory Ficklin’s first White House job was as a messenger, and it plunged him into a presidency deep in crisis, although he was unaware of it at the time. During the summer of 1974, while he was in high school, he was the primary courier between the Nixon White House and the Watergate special prosecutor’s office. The significance of the sealed envelopes he carried back and forth “didn’t really sink in until much later,” he recalled.
Back then, he was much more concerned about music, he said. Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield and Led Zeppelin loomed large in his consciousness. But it was hard to avoid the politics of the times: When he and his brother, J Woodson Ficklin, mocked President Richard M. Nixon as “Tricky Dick” and questioned “his abuse of power,” Ficklin remembers, their father would stick up for the embattled commander in chief.
“He would defend him somewhat and then disengage from us. . . . We had roofs over our heads and food on the table because he worked for Nixon,” he said. Ficklin said he later adopted his father’s approach as a model: “My personal opinions about political matters, I expressed those in the voting booth, and my supervisors didn’t need to know.”
Ficklin went to work at the NSC almost by chance, but in a very Washington way. He ran into someone who knew his father, who mentioned an opening in the mail room. He slowly worked his way through the ranks, carrying memos from the State Department to the White House each evening and monitoring events overseas outside the Situation Room as a West Wing desk officer.
He handled paper that chronicled tumultuous events: He was on the desk when the Marine barracks in Beirut were bombed in 1983, killing 299 U.S. and French forces, and when American F-14 Tomcats shot down two Libyan jets in 1981.
That desk officer job also allowed Ficklin to meet his wife, when an analyst on his team set him up with a Georgetown University classmate, Patrice Alexander. On one of their first dates, Ficklin invited Alexander to celebrate her birthday by attending the arrival ceremony for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on the South Lawn in December 1987. While she was at the White House, he had a flower arrangement delivered to her desk.
“It was just the coolest thing to be standing there. I was thinking, ‘Who is this man?’ ” she said.
Alexander headed off to attend Harvard Law School the following fall, and there she met Barack Obama, another member of the Class of 1991 and a future Oval Office occupant.
A few years later, with his wife working long hours at a D.C. law firm, Ficklin answered the home phone and found himself talking to Obama, who asked for a campaign contribution. Although his wife was an enthusiastic donor, Ficklin rebuffed him. “I’d say, ‘Hey, Barack, I’m covered under the Hatch Act. I can’t talk to you about political contributions.’ ”
Over time, Ficklin made his mark by modernizing the White House’s creaky technology infrastructure. National security adviser Susan E. Rice first met Ficklin during Bill Clinton’s administration, when staffers in the Old Executive Office Building, she recalled, would “take the records, literally roll it up in a tube, and shoot it over to the West Wing.”
Ficklin’s demeanor is elegant and his speech precise, and his job has been about managing sensitive information amid enormous change.
The NSC handles a deluge of sensitive information each day; its staff generates more than 400,000 emails daily. Last year, Ficklin’s office declassified more than 100,000 pages of documents. It expects to transfer about 12 terabytes of data — close to 5.3 billion pages — to the National Archives at the end of Obama’s term, along with about 3,000 boxes of hard-copy documents.
Ficklin “deserves a lot of credit” for making that digital transition, said his predecessor, Bill Leary.
A large part of his job has been to keep secrets, but Ficklin also handled the unprecedented release of roughly 2,500 previously classified President’s Daily Briefs from the Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations. The documents — information that top U.S. intelligence officials thought was critical for the president to know each day — analyze current and future national security issues. Although officials at a couple of agencies initially resisted the idea of making them public, because they reveal what U.S. officials thought was important enough to reach the president, Ficklin pressed the cause by citing Obama’s own executive order from Dec. 29, 2009, which dictated, “No information may remain classified indefinitely.”
Unlike his father, Ficklin had minimal interaction with presidents over the years — including the man who attended law school with his wife. Although he wanted to give Obama a personal tour once he took office in 2009, it never happened.
“One of my biggest disappointments,” he said of not being able to introduce the nation’s first African American president to the White House the Ficklins knew so well.
But in the end, Ficklin’s departure gave him a few opportunities to meet the president. Rice made sure he was invited to the state dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping in September, and Ficklin’s farewell photo allowed him to introduce his two sons, ages 22 and 19, to Obama.
“He asked me why I was retiring when he still had a year left in office,” Ficklin said. “I said I wanted to introduce my sons to him, and I had exhausted all of the possibilities to make this happen, except retirement and a family farewell photo.”
Neither of Ficklin’s sons have plans to work in the White House, but they are aware of the legacy. Patrice Ficklin said their oldest son, John Alexander, who aspires to be a research scientist, sometimes thinks about it out loud.
“He kind of wistfully says, ‘I feel like I should get a job at the White House,’ ” she said, coming up with her own answer about where his skills might fit: “Well, I suppose there is OSTP.” That is Washington acronym-speak for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
James Jeffries Jr. just worked a White House reception for the nation’s mayors last month. But Flossie Malachi — who recalls regularly seeing Bess Truman in a hairnet, with her pink slip showing as the pantry staff prepared afternoon teas — said she has accepted that the family’s White House run is nearing its end. “I can say we had our time there,” she said.
In a sense, Ficklin — whose in-laws call him “The Honorable,” the formal title for someone who has reached the rank of special assistant to the president — isn’t leaving, after all. Rice, who persuaded him to stay on for 2
“We wanted to have the benefit of his knowledge as long as possible,” she said.
Ficklin said that “deep within, I have always been an artist and musician, not a bureaucrat.” But he is willing to help, within limits. He says he now spends more time on his jazz drums, photography and on the South River in the Chesapeake Bay.
“It will be on a part-time basis,” he said of his continued work at the White House. “I’m going to spend most of my time on our boat.”