This collection is available in whole for research use.


 
 

Biography

John Woodson Ficklin (1919-1984) served forty three years on the domestic service staff at the White House. His final position was as the White House Maitre d’ (the equivalent of “head butler”) at the executive mansion.

John Ficklin, one of ten children, was born on a farm in rural Rappahannock, Virginia. His father was a former slave. Both he and his older brother Charles moved to Washington, DC and worked as butlers and housemen for wealthy families in the Georgetown neighborhood. At some point, they both met Sam Jackson, Jr. whose father was a butler at the White House. Through him, Charles and John Ficklin both began part-time work assisting out as housemen/butlers when White House special events required extra help. This was just before and during the early years of World War II.

John Ficklin was drafted in 1941 and in the Army medical corps in the South Pacific. In the meantime, his older brother Charles was hired as a full-time butler at the White House. Charles managed to get John the chance at a White House job which he chose over other options in 1946.

Charles was soon promoted to head butler and then maitre d’. He retired in the mid-1960s and John Ficklin was promoted to maitre d’. The Ficklins’ younger brother, Samuel, was an engineer at the Bureau of Engraving, but he also worked as an as-needed, part-time butler at the White House.

Ficklin worked for nine presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. He refused to name a favorite of any of them. He was present when Mrs. Kennedy returned to the White House from the assassination of her husband in Dallas in 1963. Ficklin assisted Mrs. Kennedy with all the funeral and family arrangements. He did not return to his home for over a week. Mrs. Kennedy asked him to be an usher at the funeral services for President Kennedy.

During his tenure, Ficklin assisted with the planning and execution of three White House weddings: Patricia Nixon Cox, Luci Baines Johnson Nugent and Lynda Byrd Johnson Robb. He worked with all the First Ladies in planning meals and state dinners and worked with numerous White House Social Secretaries.

Mr. Ficklin appeared as a mystery challenger on the CBS game show, What’s My Line?. He earned $325.00 for his appearance, although the panel guessed his occupation. There is some discrepancy as to when he appeared. The Goodson-Todman letter accompanying the check says April 30, 1962 as does another piece of correspondence. The online listing of episodes states November 6, 1960 and discusses the upcoming historic election. Further discussion states that Ficklin’s response about the “upcoming” election is what clued the panel into his association with the White House.

After his retirement, Ficklin and his wife Nancy were special guests at the state dinner for Shaykh Isa bin Sulman Al Khalifa, the Amir of Bahrain on July 19, 1983. Ficklin sat at the table with First Lady Nancy Reagan. This was the first occasion of a White House service staff member attending a State Dinner. Some of Ficklin’s experiences were used in the movie, The Butler, although the movie is based on another maitre d’, Eugene Allen.

Ficklin retired on May 28, 1983 and passed away on December 16, 1984 from cancer. Ficklin and his wife had two sons, J. Woodson Ficklin and John Wrory Ficklin. Woodson Ficklin died suddenly in 2009. John Wrory Ficklin is a long-time employee of the National Security Council.

Collection Description

This collection consists of historical materials related to John Woodson Ficklin’s career in the White House.

This collection was donated by John Wrory Ficklin, John W. Ficklin’s son. The majority of the donation consists of museum objects and audiovisual materials. The objects are multiple large framed photographs, pens, oversize Christmas cards and other types of artifacts. For storage and preservation these items were removed and now make up a separate Ficklin objects collection housed and administered by the museum staff at the Library. An item-by-item list of all of the objects transferred to this separate collection is at the end of this inventory.

The remaining material makes up the John Woodson Ficklin Papers at the Reagan Library. The material is dated from 1946 through 1994. The material has been arranged within two series: White House Maitre D’ Textual Materials, 1947-1994 and White House Maitre D’ Audio-Visual Materials, 1946-1984.

The material that post-dates Ficklin’s death is from his son John Wrory Ficklin. This includes his email to the Washington Post correcting Wil Haygood’s contention that Eugene Allen was the first maitre d’ to attend a state dinner. Haygood, the author of The Butler: A Witness to History, and an associate producer on the movie adaptation of his book, wrote an article about being on the movie set in WP, July 28, 2013. He states that Allen was “the first butler in the history of the White House to be a guest at a state dinner.” Ficklin’s son included a series of email exchanges with the WP copy chief who promised a printed correction.

This post-mortem material also includes an interview with John Wrory Ficklin about his father’s career in Footsteps: African-American History: Blacks and the White House, 2002; the announcement of the donation of this collection to the Reagan Library and selected images from the collection in Washingtonian, July 2014; a Smithsonian Institution Folklife/Cultural studies project program with a photo of Ficklin Workers at the White House, 2002; and Christmas cards for John Wrory Ficklin and his family from President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush.

 

SERIES I: WHITE HOUSE MAITRE D’ TEXTUAL MATERIALS, 1947-1994 (1.1.l.ft.; Box 1-3)

This series consists of thank you letters to Ficklin on numerous topics and events; notes on Ficklin’s health, notes on the death of Ficklin’s brother Charles, retirement congratulations notes; 25th anniversary congratulations to John Ficklin; Christmas cards; invitations; and general correspondence to Ficklin in his capacity as head butler. Correspondents include Presidents Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter; First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Lady Byrd Johnson, Patricia Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalyn Carter and Nancy Reagan; Presidential children including Luci Johnson Nugent, Lynda Johnson Robb, Tricia Nixon Cox, and Susan Ford; and White House Social Secretaries Bess Abell, Lucy Winchester, Gretchen Poston, and Mabel “Muffie” Brandon.

Also included is material on the state dinner attended by Ficklin and his wife, Nancy. It includes the guest list, the menu, the program and both Ficklins got autographs on the back of their menus from all of the guests at their respective tables. This series also has random items which may or may not have had significance for Mr. Ficklin including the event program for the visit of Pope John Paul II to the White House in 1979; a poster on the surrender of the Japanese in World War II; invitation to the opening of the John F. Kennedy Library and the christening of the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, information on the John Quincy and Louisa Adams portraits; a White House dinner menu from 1953 and a White House luncheon menu from 1969; an assortment of table place cards; a single catering bill; and a florist card from the White House to Ficklin.

The series also contains two scripts/proposals for programs on the White House staff and possible input from Ficklin; invitations to White House weddings and to Susan Ford’s wedding in California; programs and items from memorial services for President Kennedy and Presient Johnson; correspondence with former butlers/maitre d’s John Pye and Alonzo Fields; publications on the White House, and numerous news clippings about Mr. Ficklin, his life and domestic service work at the White House.

SERIES II: WHITE HOUSE MAITRE D’ AUDIO-VISUAL MATERIALS, 1946-1984.

Five photograph albums were part of this donated collection. The albums were identified by the creator or the donor (this is unclear) as letters A-D, and also included an “E” volume. We removed the photos from the albums, sleeved the photos when possible, and for preservation reasons have moved these photographs to the audio visual storage area. We have provided an item list of these photographs

The photographs contained in each album are numbered 1, 2, etc., and we have retained this marking. Mr. Ficklin identified some of the people in the photographs but he was unable to identify all of the individuals. Where a question mark is noted, Ficklin could not identify the individual. People are identified from left to right in each photograph.

Please request to see this material from the audio-visual archivist, Steve Branch.

Last Updated: 09/27/2020 05:08AM

Filter by Status

Filter by Status

Contact an Archivist

Have a research question? Contact an archivist about this collection or about research at the Reagan Library.

Contact Us

Archival Resources

Here are quick links to the most used resources at the Reagan Library. 

White House Staff & Office Files

White House Office of Records Management (WHORM) Subject Files

WHORM Alphabetical FIles

Topic Guides

Back to Top