Howard Bernard ‘Reds’ Arrington, 79; plumber kept White House flush
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 March 24 in Annapolis, Md. He was 79.
Arrington, who was on call virtually around the clock, seven days a week, was chief plumbing foreman at the White House for 19 years. He retired in 1979, having served every president from Harry S. Truman to Jimmy Carter.
“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,” 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 of President Eisenhower.
To clean one of the White House fountains, Arrington sat in a small boat and used 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,’ ” said Arrington’s wife of 58 years, Margaret. “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 the plumbing far too seriously was Lyndon B. Johnson.
“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,” 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,” Arrington said.
When he was experiencing trouble adjusting the shower, he felt the full fury of Johnson’s legendary temper in a three-minute phone call that concluded with the president slamming down the phone.
Normally, calls conveying the president’s wishes came from the chief usher at the White House, but not this one, Margaret 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 by Margaret Arrington.
To inspire Arrington, no doubt, the president 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,” 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,’ ” the usher said.
After five years of tinkering and fine-tuning the shower, it was President Nixon who ordered 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, Arrington liked to tell people, “I’m the real White House plumber.”
Inevitably, 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,” his wife said.
Arrington was born in Roanoke, Va., and moved with his family to Washington in 1937. After graduating from vocational school, he enlisted in the Navy and served as a gunner aboard a carrier vessel escort in the Pacific.
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,” his wife said.
Arrington is also survived by three daughters and seven grandchildren.