For a Family Descended from a Slave, a Long White House Tradition Comes to an End

John Ficklin, who retired last month just shy of his 60th birthday, is the 10th member of his family — and perhaps the last — to work at the White House. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
John Ficklin, who retired last month just shy of his 60th birthday, is the 10th member of his family — and perhaps the last — to work at the White House. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

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 mourning 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.)

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Source: The Washington Post | Juliet Eilperin