Howard B. `Reds' Arrington

Presidential plumber worked in the White House for more than three decades, under seven presidents.

March 27, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Howard Bernard "Reds" Arrington, the former White House plumber who for more than three decades kept the plumbing humming and the fountains splashing through seven presidential administrations, died of cancer Saturday at Anne Arundel Medical Center. The Edgewater resident was 79.

Mr. Arrington was born in Roanoke, Va., and lived briefly in Covington, Va., before moving with his family to Washington in 1937.

He was a graduate of the old Bell Vocational School in Washington, and enlisted in the Navy in 1944. He served as a gunner aboard a carrier vessel escort in the Pacific, and, two days after being discharged in 1946, he went to work in the White House.

"He had an uncle who worked in the White House, and he got Reds a job in the bouquet room working with flowers. He then became a plumber's helper and learned his trade while working there," said his wife of 58 years, the former Margaret Meredith.

Mr. Arrington, who was virtually on call around the clock, seven days a week, was chief plumbing foreman at the White House for 19 years. He retired in 1979.

"I think there were 17 bathrooms in the mansion. He also had to care for the White House pool and fountains, and he always had plenty of tales to tell," Mrs. Arrington said.

"I did all kinds of things. I got a call once that Mrs. Truman's toilet wasn't flushing right. So I went over there, and all of a sudden up comes these false teeth. They weren't Mrs. Truman's, they were her maid's," Mr. Arrington told Life magazine in a 1992 feature story on the White House.

"Ike used to drive golf balls down the South Lawn right into the fountain. The water was so deep, he would give me his waders and a ball retriever," he said in the interview.

During a routine cleaning of a White House fountain, Mr. Arrington was seated in a small boat with a pole.

"Looking out of a White House window, President Kennedy, said, `My God, there's a man out there in a boat and he's fishing,'" Mrs. Arrington said, laughing. "Another time, a plumber's helper turned a valve the wrong way and it blew steam into Mrs. Kennedy's clothes closet. I don't think she was very happy about it."

The one president who took his plumbing far too seriously, perhaps, was Lyndon B. Johnson.

"He almost caused Reds to have ulcers. One night, we were out dining in an Annapolis restaurant when we were paged. `White House calling Howard Arrington,'" Mrs. Arrington recalled. "They wanted Reds to come right over because President Johnson wanted his commode turned so it sat caddy-cornered in his bathroom."

"President Johnson started right in about his shower when he moved into the White House. He said, `I don't have any pressure, for one thing,' and that he wanted it just like the shower at his Georgetown home," Mr. Arrington said in the Life interview.

"So my assistant and I worked on his shower, and the President tried it and said, `That was nothing.' Then he said he wanted body sprays all around, not just overhead. He wanted one on the floor, too. This wasn't for his feet - he wanted it to hit up his rear," Mr. Arrington said.

When he was experiencing trouble adjusting the shower, he felt the full fury of LBJ's legendary temper in a three-minute phone call that concluded with his slamming down the phone.

Normally, calls conveying the president's wishes came from the chief usher at the White House, but not this one, Mrs. Arrington said.

"We have flunkies in Johnson City that can fix it, why can't you? I don't want any change in pressure when I go from the overhead to both. Bring in the engineers, anybody, but have that thing fixed by the time I get back from Texas," boomed the president, as recalled in a written account by Mrs. Arrington.

To inspire Mr. Arrington, no doubt, Mr. Johnson added: "If I can move 10,000 troops in a day, you certainly can fix the shower."

"We ended up with four pumps, and then we had to increase the size of our water lines because other parts of the house were being sucked dry," Mr. Arrington said in the Life interview. "One day the head usher tried out the shower. It pinned him right against the wall, and he looked like a lobster when he came out. `I don't see how he can stand it,'" he said.

After five years of tinkering and fine-tuning the shower, it was President Richard M. Nixon who ordered Mr. Arrington to "get rid of this stuff," after taking office in 1969.

When the existence of the White House Plumbers became known during the Watergate scandal, Mr. Arrington liked to tell people, "I'm the real White House plumber."

Inevitably, Mr. Arrington was asked in numerous interviews through the years who were his favorite presidents.

"He'd say, `They were all very good to me,' but he especially liked working for Ike and Nixon," Mrs. Arrington said.

In 1992, Mr. Arrington talked of his White House years as part of the Festival of American Folklife sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.

"There's no place like the White House. All the things you do for a family out of your line of work - anything they wanted, from fixing a pocketbook to moving furniture," Mr. Arrington said in the souvenir festival booklet.

Mr. Arrington enjoyed planting tulips and gardening at his Edgewater home. He also liked to golf, fish and visit presidential libraries.

He was a member of Mayo United Methodist Church, 1005 Old Turkey Point Road, Edgewater, where services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

Also surviving are three daughters, Donna L. Clay of Greensboro, N.C., Bonnie K. Pellicot of Edgewater and Sherri L. Hennen of Mayo; two brothers, Harold Arrington of New Carrollton and Bonner Arrington of Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and seven grandchildren.

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