WASHINGTON — In the end, Eugene Allen, a White House butler who lived a life behind the scenes of history, was the subject of wide acclaim.
Several hundred people packed a funeral service Thursday at Greater First Baptist Church on 13th Street NW to celebrate Allen's life and the national narrative he embodied.
"His life represents an important part of the American story," President Barack Obama said in remarks read from a lectern by Rear Adm. Stephen Rochon, chief usher of the White House. The president's letter cited Allen for his service to the country and his "abiding patriotism."
"He was such a charming man," said Delores Moaney, who worked at the White House as a maid during the Eisenhower administration. During that pre-civil rights era, such jobs were considered prestigious positions among blacks. "I had worked as a maid with the Eisenhower family in New York," she said, her hand resting on her cane. "When I got to the White House, I met Gene. You'd notice his smile right away."
Allen, who died March 31, was born in 1919 and raised in a log cabin in Virginia during a time of harsh segregation. He served eight presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan. Such was Allen's reputation inside the White House that first lady Nancy Reagan invited him to attend a state dinner for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Allen, who believed he was the first butler to be invited to a state dinner, danced underneath chandeliered light with his wife, Helene, that night and sipped champagne that he had, for so long, served to others.
Allen was behind the doors of the White House during the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Vietnam War, Watergate and many other epochal events.
Years after he retired, Allen and his wife of 65 years were looking forward to voting for Barack Obama, the first African-American president. Helene, however, died the day before the election, and Allen went to the polls by himself. He and his wife were profiled in a 2008 Washington Post article. He later would receive a VIP invitation to Obama's swearing-in.
Nancy Mitchell, who became the first female usher at the White House, was at Thursday's funeral service. "I was scared when I first joined the White House" in 1980, she recalled. "Gene — he told me to call him Gene, but I never could — calmed me down. He'd come and get me and say, 'Nancy, let's go get some lunch.' And he had already set up a lovely place setting for me and him. He may have been the best man I ever met."
The choir sang Jesus on the Main Line, and it sang Oh Mary Don't You Weep.
There was weeping anyway.
Allen's son, Charles, stood at a lectern and shared a memory: "My father came home late on the day that President Kennedy had been shot. But then he got up and put his coat back on. He said, 'I've got to go back to work.' But in the hallway, he fell against the wall and started crying. That was the first time in my life I had ever seen my father cry."
The Rev. Winston Ridley, who officiated, said Allen "was there during the declaration of wars, the desegregation of schools. All the while walking among the presidents and carrying food and drinks with a quiet dignity. He was there during the events that would change the course of history."
Moaney, the Eisenhower maid, shook her head in silence back and forth, as people do when they believe they've just heard something sweet and spiritual.
The minister continued: "Now, it's true that some tried to stigmatize his job, that of a butler. But Eugene Allen raised it to a level of excellence. It was as if Eugene knew the way to be exalted was through humility."
They laid the butler to rest at Rock Creek Cemetery. He wore a gray evening suit, a White House pin on his lapel and a pair of snow-white gloves. Helene lay just inches away.