Don White, 54, Guarded Integrity of the Capitol

Posted October 30, 2009 at 4:47pm

For years, Don White was the man behind the Capitol’s gleaming marble walls and furnishings, the guy Members called when they needed a sound system for an event or wood for their fireplaces. He orchestrated countless Rotunda ceremonies and oversaw everything from the nuts and bolts of presidential inaugurations to the capture of a mouse loose in the Capitol.

Last week, White died at age 54 after being diagnosed with lung cancer a few months ago, leaving behind dozens of staffers and co-workers who saw him as a Congressional institution.

“He has just always been accommodating and desirous of ensuring that everything is perfect. He could never, never do enough to make sure that the history of this place is maintained,— said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who met White 11 years ago when he was chairman of the House Rules Committee. “The Capitol is such an important symbol, and maintaining it and ensuring its integrity is something that he always strove to do.—

White began working for the Architect of the Capitol almost 20 years ago, starting as a management assistant in the AOC’s front office and working his way up to the Assistant Superintendent for the Capitol Building. A retired Marine, he was professional, detail-oriented and reliable, colleagues say, with an extensive knowledge of the workings of the Capitol.

Perry Caswell, a project manager and engineering technician, met White when he first began working at the AOC. Then the foreman of the carpenter’s shop, Caswell worked with White on the Capitol’s never-ending construction projects and the two became good friends.

White, he said, knew the ins and outs of every contract. He knew who was buffing the floors, who cleaned the chandeliers, who vacuumed the carpets.

“He was very matter-of-fact, very to the point, always totally prepared, always trying to do the right thing,— Caswell said. “He was very on top of the game.—

White’s job also put him in constant contact with Members and their staffs. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office (D-Calif.) coordinated with White for every big event, relying on him to make sure they had necessities such as a working sound system and enough chairs. From presidents to kings and queens, White provided for them all with “true professionalism,— said Stacy Kerr, special assistant to Pelosi.

“There was never a big event that could be pulled off without Don,— said Kerr, one of many staffers in Pelosi’s office who worked regularly with White. “He had all the answers, or at least we thought he did. To us it feels like we’re not just losing a friend and colleague, but an institution.—

Capitol Superintendent Carlos Elias said White was “very, very aggressive in making sure that Members were satisfied with the work.—

And sometimes they were demanding. In 1998, Dreier said, he asked White to get his fireplace working — after more than a century of disuse.

“We lit it,— he said with a laugh, “and about 150 years of soot came out of the top of the Capitol.—

But perhaps White’s biggest undertakings were the presidential inaugurations, for which he oversaw the building of the stage, the placement of the chairs and every construction project in between.

One of his “bigger headaches— came the night before President George W. Bush’s 2005 inauguration, Caswell said, when snow blanketed the area. The AOC did not have enough employees to clean it up, so nearby military bases sent a couple hundred men to help out. The crew spent all night clearing falling snow from the stage and 30,000 chairs to ensure that on camera it would look as if snow had never fallen at all.

They got it done.

“He was someone you could trust on anything,— Elias said, “because you knew that he was gonna come through.—

White was diagnosed with cancer in June. A heavy smoker, he had a constant heavy cough and a sore back, but it wasn’t until the pain affected his golf game — a pastime he enjoyed with Caswell — that he went to a doctor. He continued to work from home, Caswell said, until just before he died, never complaining of his condition.

He is survived by his two children, Donald III and Ashley Eva, and one grandchild, Matthew Alexander White.