WASHINGTON – Presidents come and go, but one constant through 10 presidencies has been Dale Haney, the chief White House groundskeeper, who as of this month has spent 50 years serving the families — and many of their pets — who have called the mansion home.
Haney's chief responsibility is to care for the vast lawns, colorful flower gardens, hundreds of trees, thousands of shrubs and burgeoning vegetable garden on 18 acres of property surrounding the White House. He also picks out the official White House Christmas tree every year — and already chose this year's fir from a Pennsylvania farm.
To honor Haney, Biden and his wife, Jill, surprised Haney on Monday by planting an elm tree on the south grounds. Biden said visitors in future years are “going to be looking at this tree and asking, ’Who’s Dale?”
Haney joked that he “might still be here.”
But Haney is perhaps better known to many at the White House, from staff to Secret Service officers, as the keeper of the president's pets.
“He's like the whisperer,” said Anita McBride, who was a young aide in the correspondence office in Ronald Reagan's administration when she first met Haney.
These days, Haney is often seen walking Commander, President Joe Biden's German shepherd.
“The first thing that I think about when I think about Dale is his relationship with the first family's animals,” said Gary Walters, who had a lengthy employment record of his own serving four presidents over 20 years as White House chief usher, managing the residence staff.
Walters recalled the chaos of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the evacuation of the White House while President George W. Bush was in Florida. Walters and some of his staff had stayed behind despite the evacuation. They were on the South Lawn when Walters turned around "and there was Dale standing with Barney under one arm and Kitty Cat under the other."
“He had to find them and was looking for direction on what to do with them,” Walters said of Bush's Scottish terrier and cat. The pets eventually were reunited with Laura Bush at a remote location.
A TWO-YEAR PLAN
Anyone starting a career these days is unlikely to still have that job a half century later, but Haney's long employment record fits right in at the White House.
He's a member of the operations staff — the scores of housekeepers, butlers, electricians, carpenters, gardeners and others — who aren't involved in the policy or politics. Their job is to keep the place running and take care of the families. Many hold their jobs for decades.
“It’s a unique role within the White House,” said McBride, who encountered Haney again when she returned to work for Presidents George H.W. Bush and later, for his son.
Haney had planned to work just two years at the White House when he started in 1972, during Richard Nixon's presidency. He had a bachelor's degree in horticulture and wanted to go back to school to continue his studies.
He was interning in the gardens at the Dumbarton Oaks museum in Washington when the White House called over looking for someone who could help with its grounds care. He interviewed and started work six months later as a gardener with the National Park Service, which cares for the White House grounds.
Haney became foreman, then chief horticulturalist, before he was promoted to grounds superintendent in 2008, a position that made him part of the White House residence staff. Haney reports to the chief usher, and supervises a full-time staff of 12 gardeners, maintenance workers, electricians and plumbers.
“When I accepted the job I agreed to stay for two years,” he said in an interview with White House History Quarterly, a publication of the White House Historical Association. “But the time has gone by so fast that it really doesn't feel like 50 years."
He and his team are so busy that “it has been easy to forget that time is passing. No day is ever the same and every day brings challenges.”
EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY
Haney, who turns 71 on Nov. 4, has seen gobs of White House history unfold:
Nixon departing the White House by helicopter after he resigned in 1974. President Jimmy Carter overseeing the signing of a landmark peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979.
The crash of a small plane on the grounds in 1994. The evacuation on 9/11. President Barack Obama's “beer summit” in 2009. President Donald Trump hosting portions of the Republican Party's national political convention on the South Lawn in 2020.
Fifty years of annual Easter Egg Rolls and numerous state arrival ceremonies for world leaders, including three visits by Queen Elizabeth II and three different popes. Another state arrival is in the works for France's president on Dec. 1.
The South Lawn will become a wedding venue on Nov. 19 for Biden's granddaughter Naomi.
WORKING WITH THE EAST WING
First families typically find ways to leave a lasting imprint on the White House and sometimes that involves the grounds.
“His meticulous attention to detail always ensures and preserves the beauty of the White House grounds for many to enjoy,” the former first lady said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Laura Bush remembered Haney as “the best friend to all the animals.”
“Our dogs Spot, Barney and Beazley adored him,” she said in a statement to AP. “They loved him more than they loved us.”
Obama and his wife, Michelle, sent Haney a letter thanking him for bringing his “passion” and “expertise to the immensely difficult task of caring for the White House grounds." They added: "We will also never forget how wonderfully you cared for Sunny and Bo," the family's dogs.
“Indeed, you have made and lived history,” Bill and Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea said in their own note to Haney, also shared with AP.
Haney was one of the first people Debra Dunn met after she was put in charge of the White House visitor's office after the elder Bush took office in 1989.
Easter came early that year, she said, and only one member of her small staff had experience planning events for 30,000 people.
But Haney talked her through some of the logistics, she said, and introduced her to other staffers who could help, like carpenters and florists.
For Halloween, Dunn recalled fretting about a setting and props. Haney told her about an enormous pumpkin from a past celebration that was sitting in a warehouse.
“How would I have known that existed?” she asked in a telephone interview from Paris, where she lives and works. “He was just my guiding star.”
McBride said that's why people love Haney.
“Anybody that's worked in the White House has encountered him, whether it's once or a hundred times," she said. “The mere mention of his name just brings a smile to your face because he's so joyful about his job and friendly to everyone.”