Occupants of the Oval Office might come and go. But some other faces at the White House never seemed to change. Eugene Allen's was one of them. As a butler, he served eight presidents, a discreet stage hand who for three decades helped keep the show running in the most important political theatre of all. From his place in the wings, and occasionally in a tiny supporting role, he witnessed many momentous events. None surely, though, was as momentous as the one he witnessed in retirement as a specially invited guest, barely a year before he died: the inauguration of a fellow black man to the highest office in the land.
On that 20 January 2009, Allen's life came full circle. He had been born in strictly segregated Virginia, in the middle of the second term of Woodrow Wilson. He worked as a waiter in whites-only resorts and country clubs, until he heard one day in 1952 about a vacancy in the White House kitchen staff. He went along for an interview and got the job, as a "pantry man" washing dishes and polishing silverware. It paid $2,400 a year (compared with the national average wage that year of $3,400).
For the next 36 years, Allen was a fixture in the place. By the time he left he had attained the exalted level of "Maitre d'", the highest rank of White House butler. But he never saw himself as anything more than "just a humble butler," in the words of his son Charles; diligent and discreet, proud that he never missed a day's work, and always there when needed – like when Jack Kennedy was killed. Allen was invited to the funeral, but declined. "Someone had to be at the White House to serve everyone after they came from the funeral," he told the Washington Post years later. Afterwards, Jackie Kennedy gave him one of her husband's ties, which he had framed. Two days later, on 27 November 1963, Allen was helping at the sixth birthday party of the Kennedys' daughter Caroline.
In terms of sudden, cataclysmic White House tragedy, nothing, of course, came close to the assassination of JFK. But Allen saw every president close up, in his private as well as public moments, for better and for worse. He could not help, for instance, hearing the often racial profanities of Lyndon Johnson. Yet he rejoiced as Johnson signed the great civil rights bills of the 1960s. As the Vietnam War became more unpopular, he would serve LBJ cups of milk laced with whisky to calm the president's stomach as protesters outside the White House demanded his head.
The more easy-going Gerald Ford would chat to Allen about golf. The two men also shared a birthday, prompting the First Family to serenade the butler with "Happy Birthday to You". In October 1986, Nancy Reagan did make him take a day off – but only because she was inviting Allen and his wife Helene to the state dinner for the West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, at which he would otherwise have been on duty.
Such gestures, however, could never obscure the "Upstairs, Downstairs" nature of the White House. Upstairs was the domain of the President and his entourage, overwhelmingly male and white. The servants, however, the maids, kitchen staff and doormen, were largely black. As Allen watched over the years, the balance began to shift, but only slowly. Not until Colin Powell became Reagan's national security adviser in 1987 did an African-American enter the inner circle of presidential advisers.
But in 2008 everything changed – both for the presidency and Eugene Allen. That 4 November, Barack Obama was elected. Sadly, Helene, to whom he had been married for 65 years, was not there to see it; she had died on the Monday, election eve. Two days afterwards, on 6 November, the Washington Post ran a long story about Allen and the sometimes awkward history of blacks in the White House.
The impact was immediate. That same month, Colombia Pictures bought the film rights to Allen's story. The article was also noticed by the organisers of the inauguration. When the great day came Allen, clad in a black overcoat and fedora hat, was escorted by a Marine guard to a VIP seat on the West Steps of the Capitol building. "That's the man," he said as he watched. "Whew, I'm telling you, it's something to see. Seeing him standing there, it's been worth it all."
Walnut Springs, Texas, is at the junction of State Highway 144 and Farm roads 927 and 203, fifty-two miles northwest of Waco in northern Bosque County.
It was founded in 1861 and was named Walnut for a nearby spring surrounded by walnut trees. Walnut became the headquarters of the Texas Central Railroad divisional machine shops when the railroad company built a line through the community in 1880–81. The machine shops burned in the 1920s, and the company did not rebuild them. The railroad was eventually discontinued.
Central College was established in 1885 in Walnut and joined the public school system in 1892. A post office was established in 1883, and in 1892 the name was changed to Walnut Springs.
The estimated population was 1,449 in 1925. It fell to 723 in 1939 and to 490 in 1961. Walnut Springs experienced a period of growth in the late 1970s, when the Comanche Peak Nuclear Plant was being constructed. The estimated population was 519 in 1978 and 613 in 1982. In 1990 it was 716. The population reached 755 in 2000.
Karen Yancy, "Walnut Springs, TX," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hlw06), accessed August 17, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.