On a grim November day 55 years ago, George E. Thomas dressed President John F. Kennedy for the last time. The president’s loyal valet, laboring through his ineffable grief, methodically attended to the man lying before him in a coffin, careful to make one final adjustment to Kennedy’s handkerchief so it would look just the way the president always insisted, with the monogram concealed.
Just a few hours earlier, as JFK departed Air Force One and stepped into the bright Dallas sunlight on Nov. 22, 1963, he had paused to quip with Thomas: “You know, George, I think this is a bigger town than you come from.”
Indeed, Thomas hailed from tiny Berryville, Va. (pop. 1,645 in 1960), a picturesque town in the Shenandoah Valley, 60 miles from the nation’s capital. A few weeks ago, we journeyed there, on a mission to talk with those who knew him and to raise an interesting man from his status as an obscure footnote in presidential history.
The memory of this character in the life of the 35th president remains alive among his Berryville neighbors and friends. They still speak warmly of “Mr. George” and “John F.,” as the valet affectionately called JFK. They point with pride at 21 Bundy Street, the modest bungalow that was Thomas’s family home away from his “home” with the Kennedy family. Thomas returned there every weekend he was not on duty as a “gentleman’s gentleman” in Washington.
As Joan Payne, a Berryville resident who grew up in the house next door, poignantly observed: “This man who came from our little town went on to work in the White House for the President of the United States, but was never recognized for his achievements.”
Educated in the one-room schoolhouses to which African-Americans were relegated during the Jim Crow era, Thomas began his life of service as “the help” for Senator Harry F. Byrd in Winchester, Va. By the early 1940s, the future valet (a personal attendant) moved to Washington, where he worked for legendary newspaper columnist Arthur Krock. An old friend of Joseph P. Kennedy, Krock paid the former ambassador a debt by offering Thomas’ services to Joe’s son, Jack.
In 1947, as JFK entered the House of Representatives, he and Thomas began a 16-year association. Kennedy, a bachelor until age 36, was known for his unkempt appearance. Thomas, by contrast, was meticulous, and JFK relied on him to lay out his wardrobe each day. The congressman suffered from a painful spinal condition, aggravated by his WWII injury, so Thomas’ responsibilities included drawing hot baths, assisting Kennedy on stairs, and helping him into his back brace and shoes.
Although separated by race, religion, region and class, the two men shared some remarkably similar traits. Both were heroes: Kennedy had saved his PT-boat crew in the Solomon Islands; Thomas had rescued the Berryville town drunk from a police beating. Both were generous: Thomas handed out $5 bills to neighborhood kids; Kennedy donated his annual presidential salary of $100,000 to charity. In their youths, both had been pranksters, and they maintained an endearing sense of humor as adults.
On one trait, however, they differed dramatically: discretion. Kennedy, an incorrigible womanizer, would have provided an indiscreet valet with enough fodder to write a best-selling memoir. But Thomas took the secrets of Camelot to his grave, never speaking or writing about them.
The valet’s vices, such as they were, paled in comparison. Thomas’ friends said that, on weekends in Berryville, he engaged in raucous poker games, fueled by bourbon, that lasted into the wee hours. Come Sunday, Thomas, though “of the Baptist persuasion,” as one of his former neighbors quaintly described him, would retreat to the Charlestown Races to wager his poker winnings. On quieter weekends, the neighborhood children spotted “Mr. George” reading on his front porch. Like JFK, Thomas devoured books.
“We knew it was ‘Mr. George,’ and not his nearly identical brother James, on the front porch, if a book was in hand,” Payne recalled.
Thomas’ daily routine at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was similar to that of his first 13 years with Kennedy, except for the president’s habit of changing clothes up to four times a day, after daily swims and naps. This schedule required Thomas to be on constant call when at the White House, where he lived on the third floor, one flight above the First Family. Thomas, who never married or fathered children, was happy to entertain young John Jr., as the toddler played at a piano in the living quarters.
The valet’s horizons expanded when he accompanied JFK to the Kennedy family compound on Cape Cod, and on official trips abroad, including the 1961 Vienna summit with Khrushchev. His pride in serving the leader of the free world was evident as he stood next to the president at JFK’s last birthday party, on May 29, 1963. Just two weeks later, Kennedy declared that the crusade for civil rights was a moral one and observed that the grandsons of freed slaves were “not fully free.” The historical record doesn’t reveal if Thomas ever told the president about his own enslaved grandparents or the impact of segregation on his life, but he was the closest African American to Kennedy when the president proposed what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Kennedy’s support for desegregation meant that, as he arrived in Dallas in 1963, his approval rating in the South was dropping. When word spread of the president’s assassination, a white man approached one of Thomas’ neighbors in Berryville to snarl that Kennedy “should’ve been killed sooner because he was a [n—–] lover.”
Kennedy’s feelings toward his loyal aide remain unknown, but the look of abject bereavement on Thomas’ face as he stood with JFK’s family at the Arlington burial revealed his profound sense of loss. Thomas later worked for the chairman of the FDIC until his retirement in 1978, but he was never the same after the president’s death. Suffering from a cardiac ailment, which would take his life in 1980, Thomas broken-heartedly told a friend shortly before his death: “’John F.’ would have cared for me.”
Barbara Perry is the Gerald L. Baliles Professor and Director of Presidential Studies at UVA’s Miller Center, where Alfred Reaves serves as Faculty Coordinator.