Sarah Penny Smith in her White House days.

“Five Questions with…” Special Edition:  A ROTUS Roundtable

Q:  WHAT WERE YOUR DUTIES AS “RECEPTIONIST OF THE UNITED STATES” IN THE WEST WING AND WHAT WAS A TYPICAL DAY LIKE?

Stacey Silva: There was no typical day. The very first days of the first term were dedicated to standing up the way we would all operate, managing the transition of culture and expectations, along with facilitating the other White House Offices’ West Wing needs while greeting the guests who came to see the President, Vice President and Senior Staff.  When we began work on that very first Monday morning, we were all learning, setting up policies and operations - everything from the type and color of enclosure the Kennedy Center President’s Box tickets would be packaged in, who had access to and how the Roosevelt Room would be scheduled, to working with the U.S. Department of State Office of Protocol on how Head of State visits would take place.  Once the team commenced a regular rhythm, many visitors graced the West Wing – including the World Champion Whistler, Lance Armstrong, Bono and Nelson Mandela, in addition to CEOs, elected officials, Heads of State, and many others.


Ann Gray: By the time I arrived in January of 2002, the West Wing lobby was already running well. In addition to welcoming West Wing guests and carefully managing foot traffic, on any given day, I also worked closely with the State Protocol staff to ensure the lobby and President’s guestbook were ready for arriving heads of state and government.  The West Wing Receptionist also controlled the White House tennis court schedule as well as tickets to the President’s Boxes at the Kennedy Center, making sure all seats were filled for every performance. 

Bessie Doffermyre: As the ROTUS, I was responsible for first and foremost being welcoming face to all of the West Wing Visitors. I worked with the Outer Oval to coordinate the Presidents appointments. This might mean helping them find their way through security, escorting them to the Roosevelt Room or just visiting with them as they eagerly waited to see the President. Another responsibility of the ROTUS was to coordinate Departure photos with the President. 

Q:  What is your most memorable moment?

Stacey Silva: I would have to say September 11, 2001. The day the United States was forever changed, so was all that took place in the West Wing.  Overnight, the guests representing a largely domestic agenda changed to those in the military and intelligence communities representing a country that had been attacked.  From my desk, I watched the first coverage of Flight 11 crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center with total disbelief, and like so many others, incomprehension of what was taking place.  Very soon after, I was asked to gather West Wing staff and join them in the Mess.  With a variety of emotions wondering what was to happen next, we were all watching the unfolding events on the televisions.  Then, I was escorting everyone over to Blair House, but as we were all walking up West Executive Drive the U.S. Secret Service threw open the gates and told us to run.  


Sarah Penny Smith: I have many wonderful and memorable moments from my time at the White House, but one of the most memorable moments for me was witnessing President Bush spend time with children who were terminally ill.  Those moments are etched in my mind.  It is the side of the President that was not recorded by the press, but it made a lasting impact on me, and I'm sure on those sweet children and their families.


Ann Gray: There were special and humbling moments on many days – greeting  astronauts who completed missions or Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel. But a personal memory that stands out is the time President Bush met my grandma at a South Lawn helicopter arrival.  She said, “Mr. President, my name is Bridget Gallagher.  I was born in Ireland.  I am 92 years old. and I pray for you every day.”  He said, “Thank you Mrs. Gallagher.  Praying is the nicest thing anyone can do for a president.  And...… you don’t look 92.”

Bessie Doffermyre: I observed so many amazing moments just sitting in the front seat of history: Meeting countless world leaders, precious Make-A-Wish children, and the oldest surviving WWII veteran – I cannot pick one person. One day that will forever stay in my memory was the day in 2008 when the financial crisis hit and candidates Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama came to meet with the President.  I was always completely in awe by the Presidents incredible memory. When he would meet people in his office he could remember old connections with them from years and years back, which is such a gift! 

Q3:  What do you remember about what people were like as they waited to see the President?

Stacy Silva: Everyone was there for an important meeting - to see the President, at the White House, often a once in a lifetime event. Most everyone was courteous, but nervous.  I looked at it as my job to make them as comfortable as I could so they could be the best they could be in their meeting. Some paced, some sat, some wanted to talk, some did not.  Many asked what a day at the White House was like.

Ann and her son Avery Gray (now a junior at William & Mary) with President Bush in the Oval Office.

Ann Gray: Meeting with the President is an even greater privilege than being the first person to greet a West Wing guest. Some guests were nervous or excited and wanted to chat while they waited.  Others preferred quiet –  to collect their thoughts in the lobby.  Occasionally, the appointments were more somber – families who lost loved ones or soldiers recovering from battle injuries.  Discerning how to make anyone feel welcome was important.

Sarah Penny Smith: The most common emotions I remember seeing in people were excitement and nervousness.  Overall visitors were thrilled to be in the West Wing of the White House because it holds so much power and history.

Bessie Doffermyre: Everyone was always in awe by just seeing the Marine on duty, standing at the entrance to the West Wing Lobby. 

Q4:  What is the funniest or most unusual thing that happened?

Bessie Doffermyre: When the Dalai Lama came to the West Wing and tickled the Marine under his chin and tried to make him laugh! 

Stacey Silva: I would have to say the funniest thing during my time was when a gentleman came to see the President wearing a cowboy hat. It wasn’t that he was wearing the hat, it was that I asked if I could take his hat - he said no thank you; I asked a little later, are you sure I cannot take your hat?  He said no thank you.  I offered to show him where I could place his hat for safekeeping, and one final time asked him if I could take his hat.  He one last time pleasantly said, no thank you.  While this was going on the posted U.S. Secret Service Agent on the Vice President’s detail was smiling.  What he knew that I did not, was that the gentleman was a singer and songwriter known for wearing his hat.  Alan Jackson, I know who you are now.


Sarah Penny Smith: On a daily basis you would have a variety of people with different backgrounds and talents just sitting together in the West Wing Lobby.  For example:  the American idol winners would be waiting on one side of the room and members of congress on the other.  Most days seemed unusual and made me laugh a little!

Ann Gray: On any given day, there could be an interesting collection of notables crossing paths and some fascinating encounters.  The President of Colombia and Bruce Willis crossed paths in the Roosevelt Room.  Turns out President Uribe was a big fan and exclaimed, “Mr. Willis, I want you to visit my country!”  Fun to watch (and easily overheard throughout the lobby.)

Q5:  What have you taken from your White House experience and President Bush that have served you well in post-White House life?

Stacey Silva: To always treat those around you with respect and dignity equally, and make every day count as you never know how things may change.

Ann Gray: President and Mrs. Bush built an exceptional team. Learning from staff at all levels – people who consistently demonstrated respect, excellence, agility, and kindness – has served me well in work and life. 

Sarah Penny Smith: Every person matters.  I had the opportunity to witness how President and Mrs. Bush treat every person with dignity and respect.  That is one thing I will never forget and I have taken that with me in life.

Bessie Doffermyre: I could not have a loved a job more! I learned so much, but what I think back on most frequently was the humility of so many that served. Some of the most distinguished visitors were the most humble guests. I also learned that no matter how small a role or impressive a title, every single person working there mattered tremendously and made a difference.