Working in the White House

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Ralph Anthony Whiting taken in his living room on O Street

Ralph Anthony Whiting Sr. has lived on O Street in Ward 7 since 1965 and has seen plenty of changes occur in his lifetime and in the community. When he moved into the neighborhood five decades ago, the now 87-year-old was one of the only African Americans living there. In fact, according to the house’s deed, blacks (or Negroes as they were called then) and Indians (Native Americans) were restricted from living in the community, including houses, garages and even sheds.

 

Early Life

Whiting was born the second oldest of at least nine children, at a hospital in Southeast that no longer exists, and grew up within a few blocks of Capitol Hill. After attending schools like Payne Elementary and Brown Junior High, he got a job at a dry-cleaning plant upon dropping out of high school – Phelps Vocational, now known as Phelps ACE. Then he left and started working at Union Station before getting his first big break, being employed at the Office of the Quartermaster General after passing the Civil Service test and becoming a certified federal government employee.

a young Ralph Whiting in his army uniform

When the Korean conflict began, he entered the US Army, from 1952 to 1954. “A strange thing happened to me,” he recalled. “There was 210 of us that trained in Fort Knox, Kentucky. After that training, they sent 200 of us to Korea and 10 to Germany. They needed mechanics in Germany. By learning from my father, I knew how to overhaul cars. I was blessed to have learned that from my father, and got sent to Germany, because most all of those men sent to Korea got killed!”

After discharge he returned to the Office of the Quartermaster General. “They started me off as a file clerk. I would file different paperwork for Arlington Cemetery. Then they needed somebody at the White House, so they took me and I initially stayed there for six months. Then they called me back and I stayed there for 30 years,” Whiting proclaimed proudly.

 

Working in the White House 

Unlike the main character in the 2013 movie “The Butler,” starring Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, Whiting did not have to travel from the South to find employment and land the opportunity of a lifetime. But he too had a front-row seat to history, serving seven presidents during his 30-year tenure, from 1956 to 1986.

“Basically, when I first went there, they started me off taking the mail out, like a carrier. Later they brought me inside, delivering all through the building. Then after that they put me in the machine room for printing. Diane Sawyer, the one who ended up being a news reporter, would bring the press releases over to me to run them off,” Whiting recalled fondly.

He worked in the White House under four Republican and three Democratic commanders-in-chief, starting with Dwight Eisenhower and ending with Ronald Reagan. Whiting also performed his duties for all those who came in between, from John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, to Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

“One morning,” he said, “President Johnson had just come in off the chopper, about 7:30. He was coming through the East Wing. I was delivering the mail all throughout the building because we had to prepare for Monday morning. It was a Sunday. Soon as I went to go through the East Wing section, he took his foot and blocked the door. I had all this mail in my arms. I said, ‘Sir, I have one for your office.’” Whiting had to wait, with Secret Service agents standing around, while President Johnson finished reading his newspaper’s political cartoons and left the room before he could complete the task of delivering the mail.

Ralph Whiting (far right in a light blue blazer and black tie) in the midst of President Jimmy Carter

According to Whiting, President Eishenhower had a strange mannerism, perhaps because of his military background. Every time Whiting entered Eisenhower’s office to give him mail, the president would rise from his desk and stand behind his chair.

 

Retiring in Fort Dupont

Whiting has always enjoyed the quiet Southeast community and never had problems with his neighbors. Today, as gentrification continues to envelop the District of Columbia, Whiting’s Ward 7 neighbors are changing again. He has lived to see his Fort Dupont neighborhood go from majority white to predominantly black, before transitioning to its current diverse state, which includes a young white couple with an infant on the other side of Whiting’s duplex and two Asian homeowners within two blocks.

Although he now walks with a cane, Whiting swears that his blessings still occur daily as he enjoys his 33rd year of retirement with his second wife, Elizabeth, after his first wife died. Elizabeth Whiting was a widow living in Long Island, New York, who met Whiting while visiting in Silver Spring. They were married, after a 10-year courtship, a day after Whiting’s 76thbirthday. The couple now has a modern and blended family with nearly 10 children and even more grandchildren between them. The couple continues to enjoy life and retirement, indulging in extended weekend trips to visit family members.  They simply take life in stride.

“He came a long way,” remarked Elizabeth. “He could have finished high school if he wanted. He accomplished a whole lot. I don’t think too many people could have passed that Civil Service test if they didn’t have the smarts.”

Maybe “the smarts” run in Whiting’s family. His older brother, James T. “Sonny” Whiting, made local history as the first black licensed boat captain in the Washington metropolitan area. A charter member of the Seafarers Boat Club and a member of the Potomac River Pilot’s Association, he started a business selling and servicing boats in the 1970s.

Walter G. Owens Jr., who worked alongside Ralph Whiting in the White House and remains one of his closest friends, testifies to his buddy’s easygoing spirit, carefree nature and extraordinary generosity. “I will be honest with you. Ralph is the most dedicated person I have ever met. We met in the White House. There were jobs – some of which we cannot talk about to this day – tasks and assignments that nobody wanted, and Ralph would do it and sometimes even volunteer for it. The man is always there for you.”