The Admiral's Appointment: N.O. native looks back on time spent as head White House usher
NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A New Orleans native who took an unexpected call from the White House ended up making history, and as a result, he had a say in the making of the box office sensation Lee Daniels' "The Butler." Rear Admiral Stephen Rochon shared his compelling story of becoming the first African-American Director of the Executive Residence and White House Chief Usher.
The call he received from the White House came as a total surprise. In 2007, after a stellar career that began when Rochon took his oath inside the U.S. Custom House on Canal Street, Admiral Rochon was contemplating retirement.
"I was dreaming that I was going to go back to New Orleans, sit on my Camp Street porch with a shrimp po-boy in one hand, cafe' du monde in the other, and my laptop to write my book - that was my dream," said Rochon.
And the conversation initiated by the caller from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue took Rochon aback for a number of reasons.
"I say, oh God, I've got 90 days left - what did I do wrong this time to get a call from the White House? And so, the gentleman began to explain that he would like me to come interview for Chief Usher of the White House, and I wasn't impressed. I said, 'What the heck is a chief usher?' You go through all these years, 36 years you make admiral and someone wants to call you a chief usher, I mean I only envisioned someone with a round cap in a short-waist jacket with tight pants and a flashlight showing people to their seats in a movie theater, so that didn't sound very glorifying to me, at all," Rochon said with a smile on his face during our interview inside the Marble Hall of the Custom House.
Rochon said once the caller explained the historical nature of the position, he became more interested.
"Taking care of the president and the first lady, and the first family and entertaining dignitaries in the most historic mansion in the world, and I said, 'Now that sounds interesting.' And he says, 'And this is your pay.' So quickly I added up retirement, high pay at the White House. I said, 'When is my interview?'" Rochon said.
He would have nine interviews over the course of two weeks. The final interview was with President George W. Bush.
Rochon admits to being apprehensive before meeting the president, so he called a trusted mentor who encouraged him to be himself.
"That's all I needed, I was relaxed, I went into the Oval Office, warm reception, and the president he says, 'Admiral, what do you think of this chief usher business?' And I said, 'Well, Mr. President what's in a title? I'm just honored to say that I might be working directly for the President of the United States.' And he nodded his head. He liked that."
Rochon said President Bush then asked him about his marriage, a question he concedes caught him off-guard.
"And I said, well, Mr. President, I have the best marriage in the world, second to yours - and he liked that, and the next day I got a call," said Rochon.
In February 2007, the White House announced Rochon's appointment to the position and he started work at the White House in early March of that year. The position entailed enormous responsibilities. As essentially the general manager of the White House, Rochon, oversaw the day-to-day operation of the White House and among his many staffers, the butlers. He recalled his first day speaking to staff.
"Everyone for one reason or another had smiles and they were very curious because they had never seen an African-American at that podium," he said.
Rochon stated he thoroughly enjoyed his position. But he admitted that days often stretched into midnight.
"I said, 'Good gracious man, you're in your 60s and you're back at this again, full force.' But other than that the job was quite rewarding, just thinking that you were going to be a part of history," he said.
With less than two months on the job, he would have to prepare the White House to receive Queen Elizabeth.
"It was so nice to meet her, she was impressed with how we rolled out the red carpet and she wanted to meet my staff," Rochon said.
But he said getting close to another world figure at the White House proved to be much tougher.
"So I was told, 'Admiral, you can't be in the room this time.' I said, 'But I'm Catholic, and if there's any head of state I want to meet, it's the Pope," said Rochon.
Fortunately, he had something Bush administration staffers would need - the key to the security door.
"So he said, 'Okay, open the door and leave the room right away.' But the photographer, Eric Draper, was standing off enough to get me exiting the room right behind the Pope, so at least - we didn't pose together - but at least I was right here with the Holy Father," said Rochon.
In, November 2008, Barack Obama changed history when he was elected the nation's first African-American President. And not long after, the man in command of White House operations got to meet the soon-to-be new Commander-in-Chief.
"I think President Bush and Mrs. Bush by design wanted me, as the first African-American Chief Usher and Director of the Residence to greet the first African-American president for the first time. I couldn't imagine that I was going to be there, but imagine on this level, president of the United States," he said.
"And greeting him, holding his hand, I said this is a step in the right direction," said Rochon.
President Obama asked him to remain in the position.
But in 2011, Rochon made a tough decision to leave the White House for a top post in the Department of Homeland Security.
"I had another opportunity in front of me before I was to move on to taking care of my little mom full time, and this was like a step to get there. The hours at the White House did not allow me to do that," he said.
After retiring again in 2012 from the federal government, Rochon received another unexpected call, this one from a film producer. He was asked to serve as a consultant on "The Butler."
"I had to make some changes to that script, at least recommendations, because of my upbringing and the nuns and the priests - even a cousin who's a retired bishop - I couldn't sign on to the use of the F-bomb and the N-word as often as it was. Now it was a wonderful script," said Rochon.
It was an opportunity that brought him full circle and back to the U.S. Custom House, where his Coast Guard career had begun.
During the filming of the movie, Rochon was responsible for making sure White House scenes shot inside the Custom House and elsewhere in New Orleans were as accurate as possible.
"I'd like to say they were very accurate because I was there, but I didn't win every battle," he said.
But he said there were limitations.
"You can't change the direction of the marble staircase here in the U.S. Custom House to match the exact direction of the White House staircase," he said.
Before the real butler Eugene Allen's death in 2010, Rochon was privileged to take him to lunch in the White House in an area where Allen would not have been permitted during his nearly four decades at the executive residence.
"And it was I who was honored to meet someone who had been there so long, now he wasn't even near becoming an icon in the movies," said Rochon.
After having had opportunities and access that most people can only dream of, Rochon is dedicated to giving back, especially when it comes to young people.
"I think that is what it's all about because other folks gave me an opportunity and you need to reach back and grab someone else," he said.
And even now he still relishes his days at Xavier Prep High School and his Uptown upbringing.
"My mother was a single mom when I was 3 years old, and I have an older brother, and a younger brother, Gilbert and Gregory, and so she ruled with a strong hand, she wanted her boys to grow up in the right manner," he said.
And because of "The Butler" his name was heard around the world when Actor Stephen Rider played Rochon's part at the end of the film.
"That was pretty strange for me to hear someone playing me, who would have thought?" Rochon said.
And he had only one complaint about the scene.
"Very neat gentleman, but he was the age of my youngest son and I said there's no admiral that looks that young and there's no chief usher that young," said Rochon.
Still, there is little Admiral Rochon would trade about his life.
"So to sit here as a retired rear admiral, and starting off as an enlisted person is kind of an awesome thought, and a feeling that I'm blessed," he said.
Rochon is a graduate of Xavier University, and has studied at Harvard. He also produced a documentary to honor Alex Haley, the author of Roots.
He and his wife are in the process of restoring a 100-year-old home in New Orleans.
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