Science

Rex Scouten dies at 88; longtime White House chief usher

Politics and GovernmentWhite HouseObituary DatabaseObituariesU.S. Secret ServiceRichard NixonNancy Reagan

Rex Scouten, whose 48-year career in the White House began with the Trumans and ended with the Clintons, and whose duties included helping first families transition to their oversized new home, died Feb. 20 at a hospital near his home in Fairfax, Va. He was 88.

The cause was complications from hip surgery, said his daughter Carol Scouten.

Scouten started as a Secret Service agent and ended his career as curator of the White House's art and furnishings. Most of his years were spent as chief usher of the White House, primarily managing the 132-room mansion.

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"He had a true reverence for the White House as the home of the president and his family, and certainly for the presidency itself," said Gary Walters, who succeeded him as chief usher.

During 17 years as chief usher, Scouten managed a crew of nearly 100 chefs, butlers, gardeners and electricians, presiding over everyday tasks and elaborate state dinners.

Whether supervising construction of Amy Carter's treehouse or overseeing a state dinner for 1,400 in honor of returning POWs, Scouten was known for being cool under pressure. Soon after Rosalynn Carter moved in, he reacted to her shock over a $600 grocery bill by saying gently, "Mrs. Carter, it's not cheap to live at the White House."

He often saw America's most powerful families in their most private moments.

He was overseeing a remodel in the Oval Office when word came from Dallas that President Kennedy had been shot. He immediately began coordinating funeral arrangements and didn't leave the White House for five days.

As President Nixon prepared to announce his resignation in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal, First Lady Pat Nixon asked Scouten to pack the couple's belongings for their departure two days later.

Asked which president was his favorite, he often replied, "The current one," and despite the urging of friends, he refused to write a memoir about his White House years.

"I just feel very, very fortunate to have such a great relationship with all the first families," he said to an audience at the Nixon Presidential Library in 2004. "I'm not going to endanger that."

But over the years, Scouten revealed little snippets of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. President Eisenhower favored western films — the kind without love scenes — while the notoriously moody President Johnson once implored Scouten to conserve energy by wistfully describing the first time electricity flowed to his rural Texas hometown.

Scouten was particularly close to the Reagans, who named their King Charles spaniel after him. He was with Nancy Reagan in the third-floor solarium when she learned that the president had been shot. Scouten later helped her with a top-to-bottom refurbishment of the presidential home.

In 1986, he was months into his retirement when Nancy Reagan persuaded him to return to the White House as chief curator. Ever the history buff, he was most proud of acquiring a WWII situation map that President Franklin D. Roosevelt viewed days before his death, as well as the first White House painting by an African American artist.

"We are part and parcel of history," he once told Walters. "We're a very small and behind-the-scenes part, but every once in a while you have to take a step back to remember that history's being made."

Rex Wayne Scouten was born Sept.16, 1924, on his family's farm in Snover, Mich.

The only child of William and Bernice Scouten, he attended a one-room schoolhouse until eighth grade and credited his insatiable appetite for books with opening him up to adventure.

At Michigan State University, he enrolled as a 16-year-old freshman. Two years later, he joined the Army, serving in Europe during World War II.

Upon returning, he continued his studies. He met his future wife, Dorothy Walker, through mutual friends. They married in 1947, and the next year Scouten earned a bachelor's degree from Michigan State's criminal justice program. He joined the Secret Service soon after.

Scouten was first assigned to the White House detail during President Truman's inauguration in 1949. Assigned to protect Vice President Richard Nixon in 1953, he traveled with him to 42 countries over several years.

The constant travel made him seek other options in the White House, and he was appointed assistant to the chief usher in 1957. He retired 40 years later as chief curator.

"I have never lost my awe of being in the presence of the president of the United States," he told the Pensacola News Journal in 2001. "They have tremendous power and a tremendous responsibility."

In addition to daughter Carol, he is survived by his wife of 64 years, Dorothy, and daughter Carla Scouten.

christine.maiduc@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Politics and GovernmentWhite HouseObituary DatabaseObituariesU.S. Secret ServiceRichard NixonNancy Reagan
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