By Jim Palmer
Phyllis (Diedrich) Tucker and her family were huddled around the radio at their family farm in Leaf Valley (located north of Alexandria) when they learned about Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Over the months and years that followed, she watched as many of her classmates were drafted or volunteered to serve their country. By the time she graduated, some of her classmates were already casualties of war. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the events that followed resulted in changes for many Americans. For Phyllis, it resulted in a new career that took her all the way to the White House, serving under three U.S. Presidents.
“I graduated in 1944 from Central High School in Alexandria,” said Phyllis. “I remember my senior prom that year, but not in a good way. Most of the boys I knew had already enlisted, and it was a sad time as some of our classmates had been killed in the war.”
After graduation, some of her classmates went to the West Coast to work in defense plants. Others went to the Washington, D.C. area to do clerical work, filling in for male staff members who had been drafted. The young women recruited were called “G Girls” (Government Girls).
Phyllis said representatives from Washington, D.C. came to Alexandria and offered civil service tests for those interested in clerical work. Her mom was more interested than she was, Phyllis remembered.
“I was all wrapped up into myself at the time. I was very concerned about one of my cousins who was drafted and had gotten injured,” she said. “I had a brother who was just two years old at the time and I wanted to stay home on the farm. I didn’t see myself as academic material. My mother said, ‘There aren’t any good jobs here. There’s no future for you here.’”
Phyllis had worked at North American Creamery and the Blue Ribbon Bakery, both in Alexandria, in the months following graduation. She was content staying around Alexandria, but at her mom’s advice, Phyllis took the civil service tests.
“About 10 girls took the typing test and stenography tests,” she said. “We had to type so many words a minute on a manual typewriter with three errors or less (to pass). I typed 80 words a minute and passed. I was told, ‘you will hear from us later.’ Some of the girls were recruited to the east coast right away.’”
Phyllis was left waiting. And while she waited she worked in a bank helping issue war bonds.
In March 1945, she got the call that would completely change the course of her career and life.
“I was told that there was a job waiting for me in the War Department in the Pentagon,” she said. “They would pay for my transportation with the stipulation that I had to stay and work for at least six months. If I didn’t I would have to pay the government back.”
Phyllis took the job. She boarded a train at the Alexandria depot and headed to Minneapolis. Then took another train to Chicago, and then another to Washington, D.C. Up until this point her only travel experience was taking a train from Alexandria to Parkers Prairie.
“When I got to D.C. I was met by someone from the War Department at Union Station. That helped, as I would have been lost,” she recalled. “That night I stayed at Arlington Farms near the Pentagon.”
Arlington Farms was a temporary housing complex for female civil servants and service members during World War II. It was set up as a big dormitory, with little privacy.
“I had a little wash basin to myself, but had to go down the hall to share a bathroom with a lot of different girls,” she said.
During the war years, hundreds of thousands of workers were hired by the government. This caused a severe housing shortage. Fortunately, Phyllis was able to move to a private home owned by a German couple in northwest Washington, D.C.
“Their last name was Kauffman,” she remembered. “I asked them if there was a Lutheran church nearby that I could attend and they directed me to one down the street. I asked the Kaufmanns if they also attended that church. They said, ‘No, we’re Jewish.’ I didn’t know what a Jew was back then.”
Phyllis remembered that the Kauffmans both had numbers tattooed on the
ir arms. She said the Kauffmans had apparently escaped Germany in 1938, just in time.
“They turned their living room on the main floor into a big bedroom. There were nine girls sleeping on that level, all Christians,” she said. “The people who owned the home lived in the basement. We weren’t allowed to use their phone, but one of the girls from Michigan would always sneak and use their phone. The upstairs had two bedrooms and three Jewish girls from New York lived up there. All 12 girls shared one bathroom. The Jewish girls took me under their wings and taught me the facts of life and what not to do. They also helped me learn how to get around D.C. It could be a dangerous place for girls. I ended up getting much closer to a couple of the Jewish girls than anyone else in the house.”
Phyllis remembered seeing a lot of military men in D.C., who were typically stationed at Fort Mead.
“We had busses take us to these camps so the boys could enjoy dancing with us girls,” she said. “Some of the girls that would go really fell in love with the military men during this time, and it was sad when the men were sent out. We would also go out to some night clubs. We did a lot of dancing.”
She lived in a few other apartments over the years until she and husband, John, were married in 1947. They bought a house in 1957.
On the job side of her story, Phyllis started at the War Department, located in the Pentagon, which was still under construction. This would be the first of several jobs in D.C. which included new bosses and three different presidents; Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
At the War Department (in the Signal Corps), Phyllis quickly became proficient in short hand while working for her boss, who was a civil engineer.
“Everything I was doing was always top secret since we were in the height of the war,” she said.
To gain top security clearance, someone from the government even made a visit to Leaf Valley.
“A man came out and interviewed my Aunt Olga,” she said. “Fortunately Olga had learned English but was very apprehensive about why they wanted to speak with her.”
And there was a lot of top secret things going on in Washington, D.C., too.
“I remember there was a special group of women at the Pentagon while I was there that were called ‘coders.’ They had the job of decoding what the Japanese and Germans were talking about. They were all college graduates, a very exclusive group of women.”
After about a year in the Pentagon Phyllis moved on to the Department of Interior, working for the Bureau for Reclamation. She set up graphs and numbers and worked on dam projects. Everything was printed on carbon copies and everything had to be typed twice to make the type clear on the carbon copies, she said.
“We had to completely clean off our desks before we left at the end of the day,” she said. “Everything that I had was put in a safe and locked. The rest had to go into a burn bag that would pick up.”
Over the next several years, Phyllis worked in the Small Business Administration, the Office of Food and Drug Administration, the Office of Science and Technology and the Office of Emergency Preparedness which was located across from the White House.
“At the Office of Emergency Preparedness, we made plans to evacuate the Congressional people during the Cold War,” she said. “All areas were highly classified but have since been declassified. The evacuation location was under the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia. It had an entire area underneath it that Congress could run the country.”
Phyllis said her favorite job in D.C. was probably the Office of Food and Drug Administration. Her least favorite was the Bureau of Reclamation.
Why did she work in so many offices?
“To get promotions at the secretarial level, you generally had to go to different agencies, because the agencies that you were in only had grades going up to a certain number,” she said. Phyllis would look to switch jobs after a year or so in order get a pay increase and move up.
One of her jobs in the White House along the way was serving as the secretary for the Department of Science and Technology.
“They wanted someone experienced to work with him, so I was selected for that position,” she said.
While working for the Office of Science and Technology, she worked a lot with water resources. This was her first job working on the White House grounds.
“To this day, the Clean Water Act was put together by me and my boss,” she smiled.
As for bosses, she said she had a new one every year. The head of each department was always a Ph.D., and they all came from different parts of the United States... and some out of the country.
“One of my bosses, Dr. Butcher, was from Australia and his accent would kill me,” she said. “I could never get his dictation right the first time.”
And bosses were not the only things that came and went frequently
“Everytime we got a new boss, we got new furniture,” she smiled. “Fancy furniture.”
Once Phyllis started working at the White House, her job intensified.
“I had two phones, and they would ring all the time,” she said. “The White House was a very hard place to work in. My typing and dictation had to be perfect. We went to work early and stayed as late as we were needed. That did not make my husband happy. And then after work, many people in the office partied a lot, but not me. I had a family to go home to.”
The building Phyllis worked in during this time was a historic Civil War building built by the Department of State during the Civil War.
“It is still there,” she said. “It is called the Old Executive Office Building, on the White House grounds. You see it all the time when there are pictures taken at the White House.”
One interesting part of Phyllis’ job was attending receptions on the White House grounds.
“There would have huge receptions for foreign dignitaries. I don’t remember most of their names now, but they were from all over the world. At every one of the receptions they would give us a flag from the country of the foreign dignitary. I still have all those flags, and there are a lot of them,” she said, opening a box packed with small flags from all across the globe.
Phyllis would also cross paths with the President now and then, usually at public events.
“We would sometimes see the president and first lady at events like the Christmas party or the Easter Egg Roll,” she said. “President Reagan also randomly came into the office.”
And sometimes Phyllis’ family was able to join her.
“When Nixon was in office, my husband and I got to go to the Christmas party at the White House. For that party, we were allowed to walk all of the rooms on the main floor of the White House,” said Karen Kaehler, Phyllis’ daughter. “We got our ticket and we could walk into areas that the public visitors were not able to visit. I went around and sat on all the chairs so I could say, ‘I bet I sat on a chair that Abraham Lincoln sat on.’ It was an amazing time. It was one of the highlights of my life.”
Over the years Phyllis got a front row seat to some historical events in U.S. history.
When the Iran hostages were released, she was there.
“You saw that?”asked her daughter, surprised.
“Yes, I was there. I took the pictures,” said Phyllis, pointing at photos of hostages getting off a bus near the White House.
Phyllis was working at the Office of Emergency Preparedness when the Cuban Missile Crisis was escalating and eventually resolved in 1962. This crisis was considered by most as the closest the Cold War came to developing into a full-scale nuclear war.
“It was really tense after President Kennedy gave the ultimatum (to Nikita Khruschchev),” said Phyllis. “We were hours away from being nuked by Russia.”
And at different White House events, she would see a variety of famous people.
“I met famous authors,” she said. “I met Vice President Nelson Rockefeller at a party. I watched Karen Carpenter perform once, lots of people,” she said.
She also had some connections that came in handy.
“My father wanted to meet Hubert Humphrey,” she said, “So he went to the capital and we arranged a meeting. Hubert came out and said, “Where is that farmer from Minnesota? My parents were just tickled.”
Phyllis’ daughter, Karen, grew up in Washington, D.C., and also saw a lot of things first hand that a typical American kid did not.
“I would ride with my mom when I had summer jobs and I would have to walk along Pennsylvania Avenue,” said Karen. “There were always protesters outside the White House, especially during the Vietnam War. Everything was much more open back then. Now you can’t get close to the White House. My mom had her own parking spot at the White House, which was an incredible perk. I learned early on how special my mom’s job was.”
Access to the White House was also more relaxed. Although access to the grounds was limited, it was not nearly as secure as it is today.
Over the course of 36 years, Phyllis served in D.C., both on and off the White House grounds. As was the common practice back then, if you started serving at the time of a Republican administration, you could stay as long as that political party was in office. If the administration changed after an election you would have to leave. This had nothing to do with your personal political affiliation, noted Phyllis. The same was true for those who started under Democratic administrations. Phyllis served under Pres. Richard Nixon until 1974, Pres. Gerald Ford (1974-1977), and then had to resign when Pres. Jimmy Carter took office in 1977. During the Carter years she worked in the Environmental Protection Agency. When Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president in 1981 she returned to the White House.
“When President Reagan was elected, I was asked to come back,” she said. I was assigned to the White House Library, also located in the old Executive Office Building.”
Phyllis noted that when a president exited, all of the files were purged, which was a big job. While she was purging files from her office after one of the Presidents left she came across a few interesting things. One was a letter from John Wayne to President Reagan, with Wayne’s signature on the bottom. She held on to that letter, even though she was not supposed to.
During her time in office, Phyllis got a good feel for each of the Presidents, and the First Ladies.
“I really liked Betty and President Ford,” she said. “They were very personable.”
Phyllis was fond of President Reagan but said Nancy Reagan was much harder to work with.
She was also not a big fan of the Nixons during their days in office, but she remembered a lot of people crying when he resigned.
“The idea of a president resigning was a big deal,” she said.
Phyllis said the Watergate scandal was a big surprise to the people in her office.
“It was unbelievable,” she said. “The whole staff denied that they had any knowledge of it for a long time. We were all very loyal to the president. It wasn’t until the Nixon tapes were found and played that things changed. That is when the White House staff started to get involved.”
Phyllis had “dear friends” who worked for some of the main players in the scandal. Those players included John Ehrlichman (Nixon’s assistant for domestic affairs), H.R. Haldeman (Nixon’s Chief of Staff) and Charles Colson (Special Counsel to Nixon).
“It was a very stressful time in Washington,” she said.
In March 1983, Phyllis retired from the White House Library position. She stayed in the D.C. area and cleaned houses for five more years.
“I didn’t want another secretary job,” she said.
Phyllis’ husband, John, died shortly after they retired. Phyllis, now 93, moved back to Alexandria in 1999 to be closer to her daughter, grandchildren and other family. She hasn’t actively used her office skills for several years.
“But she is still very organized,” said Karen.