The True Story Of The Man Who Served 11 American Presidents

Imagine knowing 11 American presidents personally. For Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, it came with the job. As a butler to some of the most powerful global leaders, Jerman witnessed decades of history unfold. One of the White House's longest-serving employees, he died in May from the coronavirus at age 91, according to Today

"He was a lovely man," said former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush in a statement to NBC News. "He was the first person we saw in the morning when we left the residence and the last person we saw each night when we returned."

Jerman was born in 1929 in Seabord, North Carolina, to farmworker Theodore Roosevelt Jerman and Alice Plum. He left school at 12 to begin employment on a farm. He moved to Washington D.C. in 1955, and did catering work. He met Eugene Allen at a party, reported NBC. Allen worked in the White House and later became head butler (as well as inspiring the 2013 movie, The Butler). Allen told Jerman he should apply as service staff.

Jerman took that advice and began working in 1957 as a cleaner in President Dwight D. Eisenhower's White House. "A meticulous man, but natural charmer with an easy smile, Jerman was one of the few White House staffers trusted to take the Kennedy children to different parts of the White House," according to Today. During this time, he was promoted to butler, partly because of this reliability.

Going back to work after retirement

The butler formed other close relationships with the presidents he saw daily. President Lyndon Johnson helped him when his first wife, Gladys, was dying from lupus. According to the New York Times, the president sent his personal doctors, along with lobster and filet mignon fresh from the White House kitchen, to Jerman's home.

Jerman first retired in 1993, during Bill Clinton's presidency. He came back to the White House in 2003 to work part-time for President George W. Bush's administration as a maître d' and an elevator operator, and continued to work there for President Barack Obama. Jerman's granddaughter, Shanta Taylor Gay, told CNN that Jerman had a stroke in 2011 and the Obama family ensured he received good hospital care and sent flowers.

Jerman's final retirement came in 2012. "With his kindness and care, Wilson Jerman helped make the White House a home for decades of first families, including ours," former First Lady Michelle Obama said in a statement to CNN after he died. "His service to others — his willingness to go above and beyond for the country he loved and all those whose lives he touched — is a legacy worthy of his generous spirit. We were lucky to have known him. Barack and I send our sincerest love and prayers to his family."

In her memoir, Becoming, Obama included an image of Jerman with the Obamas in the White House elevator (above), reported Politico. "He was wearing a white bow tie and smiling broadly."