"He was always smiling," the former first daughter said of the long-serving Wilson Jerman, whom they all called "Mr. Jerman"

By Adam Carlson
May 22, 2020 10:50 AM
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From left: Wilson Jerman and Jenna Bush Hager
Tina Hager, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum; Mike Coppola/Getty

Her voice sometimes choking with emotion, former First Daughter Jenna Bush Hager this week remembered a man who she said had helped make the White House feel like a real home.

Wilson Jerman worked as a cleaner, butler, elevator operator and maître d' in the White House, beginning in 1957, according to reports. He began serving under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and retired while President Barack Obama was in office.

"He was the loveliest," Hager, 38, said of the man they all called "Mr. Jerman." She shared her tribute on Today's third hour on Thursday, which she co-hosts with Hoda Kotb.

She continued: "It’s interesting because people will say, like, 'Gosh how was the White House, did it feel like home?' And the reason why it felt like home was because of people like him."

Jerman died on May 16 in a Virginia hospital from the novel coronavirus, according to The Washington Post.

Jerman's family said that the North Carolina native first began working in the White House in 1957, at the suggestion of his best friend, who was a butler, the Post reported. In the early '60s, then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had him promoted to butler.

"She trusted him with her children,” one of Jerman's granddaughters told the Post.

According to the paper, he continued serving through Lyndon Johnson — who sent his personal doctors to help treat Jerman's wife in 1966 as she was dying — followed by eight other commanders in chief, retiring under Obama.

“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 this week to CNN and other outlets. “We were lucky to have known him. Barack and I send our sincerest love and prayers to his family.”

Former President George W. Bush and his wife, former First Lady Laura Bush, said much the same in a similarly warm statement:

"Mr. Jerman was a lovely man. He was the first person we saw at the White House when we left the residence in the morning, and the last person we saw when we returned at night."

Speaking on Today on Thursday, Hager said, "I think 'lovely' is a word that can kind of be overused. But you can tell probably, Hoda, in those pictures — he was always smiling."

Hager partially grew up as a young girl in the White House when her grandparents George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush were in office and spent time there as a college student while her dad was president.

On Today, she reflected on the lasting bonds formed between successive first families and the White House's staff — not the policy aides and government officials, but those workers who helped with the president's daily domestic tasks.

From left: Wilson Jerman with former First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama in 2009
Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton

Hager remembered, several years ago, attending the funeral of another longtime former butler who died soon after the Obamas entered the White House.

Everyone, Hager said on Today, called him "Smiley."

"My mom, my sister and I went to his funeral and Mrs. Obama was there and she said, ‘I know what you mean now,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ " Hager recalled.

"When we had shown the girls and Mrs. Obama around the White House, we said, 'Meet these people, they will be your family, you will love them,' " Hager continued, getting choked up. "And when we talked to her she said, ‘I know what you mean, Smiley made my girls feel like this place was a home.' "

"And Mr. Jerman did that in tenfolds," Hager said. "We loved him, he was beloved by my family and he will be so missed."