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New White House usher brings Jamaican charm

Sunday - 10/23/2011, 10:12am  ET

By NANCY BENAC
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Angella Reid was fixing Christmas dinner when the phone rang. It was her boss at Jamaica's Half Moon resort calling to say that a key staff member hadn't showed up for work and Reid needed to fill in.

"But I'm cooking for my family!" a teenage Reid protested, and then the tears began to flow as her boss insisted, "There is work to be done."

Reid dried her tears, served dinner and reported to work.

"She couldn't believe that I called her in to work," remembers her former boss, Myrtle Dwyer. "She came in, after she had done family dinner, and we were happy together."

Fresh out of high school in Kingston, Reid found her life's calling in the hotel business and quickly learned the sacrifices that come when your job is to put other people's comfort first.

Now, after more than three decades working in hospitality, Reid is ready to take charge at one of the world's most exclusive residential establishments, the White House.

Next month, Reid becomes White House chief usher, only the ninth person to hold the job and the first woman in the position. She replaces retired Rear Adm. Stephen Rochon, who moved to the Department of Homeland Security.

Chief usher is a quaint title for a demanding position. Reid will oversee day-to-day operations at the president's home, a 132-room mansion with a staff of more than 90 people ranging from plumbers and electricians to butlers and cooks. She'll cater to everyone from A-list guests at state dinners to throngs of kids at the annual Easter egg roll.

In recognition of the many facets to the job, the usher's title was recently expanded to include "director of the president's executive residence."

"To say that she was hopeful and excited couldn't possibly describe how badly she hoped she was chosen for this position," says Jean Cohen, who mentored Reid in Marriott's management program when both were in New York in the 1990s. "This was her absolute dream position."

Yet even Reid's closest friends didn't have a clue a White House job was in the offing until her selection was announced.

"It was kept very hush-hush," says Brenda Belding-Topping, a longtime friend and colleague from the Ritz-Carlton organization.

Discretion may be one of the most important qualities needed for the chief usher.

In addition to seeing that things run smoothly throughout the White House, Reid will work to ensure the White House remains a home where two busy parents, their two daughters and the family dog feel comfortable and have their privacy.

In years past, the usher's job description has included everything from hunting down Caroline Kennedy's lost hamsters to getting the marriage license for President Woodrow Wilson, according to Claire Faulkner, writing in "White House History," the journal of the White House Historical Association.

President Lyndon Johnson wanted a multi-head, high-pressure shower that required serious plumbing work, according to a memoir by former usher J.B. West. Nancy Reagan was so appreciative of the longtime service of Rex Scouten, chief usher to four presidents, that she named her King Charles spaniel "Rex."

To say the usher must cater to a lot of guests is an understatement. More than a million people pass through the White House every year.

Gary Walters, chief usher for two decades before he retired in 2007, describes it as an all-encompassing job that requires understanding the likes and dislikes of the first family, learning the ways of a tradition-steeped White House, and interacting with a multitude of outside organizations such as the historical association and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Reid will come in just before the holidays, when the calendar is packed with parties and receptions, and that will make for a steep learning curve, he says.

"It's pretty much go, go, go from early in the morning, 5:30 or 6 a.m., until 1 a.m. the next day," Walters says.

For all the modern challenges of life in the White House, in other ways not much has changed since the days of Elizabeth Jaffray, a White House housekeeper from 1913 to 1925, who once described the mansion as "no remote castle, but a plain white house _ a home full of the hundred and one petty details, triumphs, worries, heartaches, and pleasures that every home faces."

Luckily, Reid has always been a problem-solver, says Dwyer.

"If ever I had a problem and nobody would step in, she would be the one," Dwyer says. "There was nothing that you could throw at her that she didn't respond to."

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