Jerman was born on January 21, 1929, in Seaboard, North Carolina. He dropped out of school at 12 years old to work on a farm. He moved to Washington, D.C., in 1955 and catered Georgetown dinner parties before he got a job as a cleaner at the White House.
Like most of his colleagues who work on the Residence staff, Jerman considered discretion and loyalty to be the most important parts of his job description. He tried not to talk about his job if he could help it. “There would be too many questions asked,” he told me. He went so far as to avoid revealing where he really worked. “I’d say, ‘I work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,’ and 99 percent of the people don’t know where that is. They’d ask you, ‘What warehouse is that? What building is that?’ I’d say, ‘It’s downtown,’” he said.
As a butler, he saw presidents and their families alone in the Residence. As a doorman, he saw everyone coming and going. But he said he would go to the grave with some of the most private things he witnessed — and he did. Jerman viewed his loyalty to the first family and his guarding of their privacy as a natural response to the trust they placed in him. “It makes you feel good that you could just go up there and walk in the first lady’s bedroom and pick up whatever she asked you to go get,” he said.
One of his close relatives remembered how every president and first lady were like Jerman’s second family. And they loved him back. When Jerman’s wife was sick, the relative said, first lady Mamie Eisenhower would sometimes send him home with meals to help feed his five children.
When the Obamas moved in, Jerman, who was African American, was amazed and honored that he would be serving the first Black first family, he told me. In Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, she included a photo of Jerman standing in the White House elevator with the Obamas. He was wearing a white bow tie and smiling broadly. In a statement after his passing, the former first lady said, “With his kindness and care, Wilson Jerman helped make the White House a home for decades of first families, including ours.”
Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush also issued a statement, calling Jerman “a lovely man” and adding, “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.”
Even in the face of unfolding history, Jerman maintained focus on his job. In the early evening on April 15, 1986, chef Frank Ruta recalled being in the kitchen with Jerman preparing dinner for the Reagans when the president walked in. Ronald Reagan often came into the kitchen, but this time he wasn’t just checking in to see how they were doing.
“I just want you boys to know that in five minutes we’re going to begin bombing Libya, and I want you to be the first to know,” Reagan announced, according to Ruta.
“That’s nice, Mr. President,” Jerman replied, “but what time would you like to have dinner?”