Skip to main content

Zelig Meets The President

June 2024
3min read

William H. Perkins, Jr., of Berwyn, Illinois, has sent us not one interesting photo but ten. They depict Mr. Perkins and family members with every American President from Truman to Clinton, and they unintentionally encapsulate nearly forty years of changing sartorial and hair styles. Mr. Perkins told us how he got started:

“In October 1932 Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Springfield, Illinois, as a presidential candidate. One of our Illinois congressmen, William Dieterich, was running for the Senate, and since my father knew Dieterich, he asked him to introduce us to Roosevelt. I was off on my quest to see history firsthand. I was eleven.”

In 1936 Perkins won a contest selling newspaper subscriptions for a county weekly. The prize was a trip to Washington, D.C. Again his father called on Senator Dieterich, this time to arrange what would be Perkins’s first Oval Office encounter with a President. He has no pictures of either meeting with Roosevelt. He met Harry Truman first at a political rally in 1944 and later when Truman became President and they both were at a United Nations conference, Perkins as driver to Lord Halifax. The Truman photograph was taken in Independence in 1964. In the group is eleven-year-old Gary Perkins, who had already shaken hands with former President Eisenhower at a political function in Illinois in September 1962 and with President Kennedy at the Oval Office five months earlier, when Kennedy was in the midst of a battle with U.S. Steel about a threatened price increase.

“President Kennedy asked Gary about his interests,” the father recalls. “Tm a Democrat,’ he replied. The President said, ‘Regarding your political views, stay just like you are and don’t get any smarter,’ and then patted him on the head.

“The photograph with Lyndon Johnson dates from April 13, 1964. Gary and I were accompanied for that one by Clark Clifford, a long-time friend of mine who later became Johnson’s Secretary of Defense. The President asked Gary if he would like to have his picture taken with the three of us sitting on a sofa in the Oval Office. The kid said he’d rather pose outdoors, so he could have the White House in the background.

“In April of 1971 we were introduced to President Nixon by Alexander Butterfield, of Watergate fame; he was the person who first told Congress about the taping system in the Oval Office. John Anderson, another longtime friend and a congressman at the time, arranged our visit with President Ford, on May 13, 1975. This was right in the middle of the crisis caused by Cambodia’s capture of the Mayaguez . Gary and I spent several very interesting hours waiting for the President and watching him, the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other officials go in and out of the Cabinet Room.”

Yet another good friend arranged for the Perkins duo to see President Carter in May 1977, four months into his Presidency. By then Perkins had assembled a rich collection of presidential memorabilia and had loaned some of it to the White House for the 1973 inauguration. He was becoming a familiar figure to the White House staff, among them the chief usher, who got him in to see Ronald Reagan in October of 1981.

“From a personal standpoint,” writes Perkins, “this was probably my most interesting visit. I asked President Reagan where he had lived in Chicago. He replied he didn’t know, as he had lived there when he was only three or four. He suggested I go to Marshall Field’s, since his father had been a shoe salesman there and the personnel department would have his records. I told the President I’d already tried that but learned that those documents had been destroyed during the Depression. He then pointed me to the Chicago Police Department, saying that his father had often been picked up on a Saturday night for drunkenness and had a record. Sure enough, I found it and the address. Later Gary took a picture of the house and sent it to the President. We received a very nice letter back.”

Sen. Alan Dixon, a mutual friend, arranged the 1990 meeting with President Bush. Gary now had a daughter, Jan, and they brought her along. The President showed her around his office, telling her the histories of various pieces of memorabilia on his shelves.

As for his most recent visit, Perkins explains, “Friends from Arkansas contacted President Clinton. We went there in July 1996 and watched him give his weekly radio address. As my son and my grandchildren and I started to leave, Clinton, who obviously had been briefed, asked me, ‘How many Presidents have you met here in the Oval Office?’ Then he told us that as a teenage delegate from Boys Nation he had met President John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden and that he, too, had a photograph to show for it.”

We continue to ask our readers to send unusual and unpublished old photographs to Carla Davidson at American Heritage, f orbes Building, 60 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10011. Please send a copy of any irreplaceable materials, include return postage, and do not mail glass negatives. We will pay one hundred dollars for each one that is run.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.

Donate