When Alonzo Fields was asked what he did with his life, he swelled with visible pride: "I looked over the shoulders of four presidents and was a silent member of the White House cabinet."
For 21 years Fields served as chief butler and maitre d' at the White House. A real "stickler for discipline," he was a major figure in the careers of workers who served presidents Hoover through Eisenhower.He remembers Wilson tap dancing for his daughters, and Winston Churchill's fondness for cognac. Once, after several refills, Churchill asked Fields to defend his reputation if anyone accused him of being a teetotaler.
"I'll defend you to the last drop," Fields promised the visiting British prime minister.
Fields died last March at age 94 but not before his anecdotes and those of some 40 other White House workers were captured on film. Their oral histories form the backbone of an exhibit celebrating service at "the nation's first house," which will criss-cross the country over the next three years.
Called "Workers at the White House," the exhibit also includes reproductions of scrapbooks kept by Fields, Eugene Allen and Lillian Rogers Parks. Woven together with the oral histories, they form a touching, humorous video produced by Smithsonian folklorist Marjorie Hunt and narrated by historian David McCullough.
Some of the stories are juicy bits of history.
Lillian Rogers Parks, 97, a White House maid and seamstress for 30 years and daughter of a White House maid, remembers from when she was a little girl President Taft's fondness for late-night dinners and how he would fall asleep at the table.
Howard "Reds" Arrington, 66, a plumbing and heating foreman, recalls the day President Johnson emerged from his morning shower with tiny clay blobs all over his back. Some of the pipe dope used in plumbing repair had sprayed out through the shower head.
To keep Johnson from firing the whole plumbing crew, his valet kept mum about the spots and tipped off the president's masseur "not to say anything, but just to clean the president up as he gave him his morning rub."
Arrington also recalls the January day that part of his crew got in an aluminum boat and tried to break ice off the water jets in the front lawn fountain. Jackie Kennedy was so fond of the water show she asked the men to keep the fountain on all winter.
"JFK looked out the window and said, `Now I've seen everything. There are people ice fishing in the fountain.' "
Like many others, White House doorman Preston Bruce has an intimate recollection of the days after the Kennedy assassination. Robert Kennedy gave Bruce the gloves he wore to his slain brother's funeral when he returned to the White House.
Maitre d' Eugene Allen, 75, said that when the oral history project first started two years ago as part of the White House bicentennial, "I didn't think much of it. But now I think it's wonderful.
"There's something about working at the nation's first house. It makes me proud."
Allen, who served in eight administrations, said the Reagans invited him to a state dinner for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It was a kick, he said, to have butlers - some of whom he'd trained - "pass cocktails to me and my wife."
Lillian Rogers Parks, whose mother, Maggie Rogers, worked for presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt, remembers being hidden in the White House as a teenager to witness state dinners and famous musicians.
Parks started sewing for Mrs. Hoover. "Every job was an emergency of sorts," she said. "One Sunday I sewed collars and cuffs on a dress so Mrs. Hoover could wear it to church."
Over the next 30 years, Parks made couch covers for Mamie Eisenhower's Gettysburg home and refashioned a favorite flowered hoop dress for Margaret Truman to wear to Buckingham Palace.
Parks lent the exhibit a vintage photo of her mother in a spectacular hat and Victorian-era dress with a train, one of several given her by Grace Coolidge.
One of the cardinal rules for the entire White House staff was "not to tell the new administration how the previous first family had done things."
"We let them ask us if they wanted to know anything," Parks said slyly.
She said President Eisenhower used the upstairs kitchen to make a Christmas eggnog "that was some kind of strong." And she said FDR's family had the most demanding social schedule.
"President Roosevelt was the housekeeper really. He looked after the menus and everything. Eleanor ate just enough to keep going."
Parks said Eleanor "believed in letting the people use the White House," so she invited them in in droves. Most days "she had two teas: one at 4 o'clock for 400 and another at 5 for 500. And then there would be an evening musicale, or a reception for the Judiciary. . . . It was exhausting, but we got used to it."
"Workers at the White House" will be at the Carter Library in Atlanta, until March 26. For a copy of the video at $19.95, call (202) 287-3424.