Photos by Peggy Harrison
employee Barbara Jett was honored by U.Va. presidents — past
and present — colleagues, family and friends at a Feb.
20 reception in her honor. Several days later, Jett retired
as longtime executive housekeeper of Carr’s Hill, home
of the University’s president.
A pillar of Carr’s Hill,
housekeeper Barbara Jett retires
By Anne Bromley
The basement has been turned into a Secret Service base,
the dining room set for queens, presidents and ambassadors.
Weddings and baby showers have been celebrated
here, and renovations, major and minor, have changed the kitchen and private
family quarters several times under her watch.
Barbara Jett, who just retired as executive housekeeper of
knows the place so well, you could say she “feels” the house, said
longtime associate and friend Lynda Birckhead.
Added University President John T. Casteen III, the current
resident of the house where she has worked for 30 years: “When Mrs. Jett leaves, life as we know
it will be different. No matter what the thermostat says, it will be colder here.”
In his remarks at a Feb. 20 reception, several days before
her last hours at work, Casteen thanked Jett for her
dedication to four U.Va. presidents
said she had watched over the house like an angel. She has been “a warm, welcoming
and gracious hostess,” he said, and much more than that.
“ My family loves Barbara Jett. We love her kindness, civility, sharp eye
and her fierce dedication to her work. We hope she forgives our sometimes clumsy
of the house on which she has lavished attention for so long.”
farewell party where Casteen stood at a lectern in the front
hall was a signature Carr’s Hill event — the house spotless and gleaming in late-afternoon
sun, the five downstairs rooms crowded with guests, including well-known U.Va.
community members like former U.Va. historian Ray Bice and former vice president
for student affairs Ernie Ern and his wife, Petie. Accompanying Casteen was his
wife, Betsy Foote Casteen; his son, Lars; and his parents, John and Irene
Casteen. The Hereford clan also came: sons Frank and Robert and their
wives; daughter Sarah and her husband, John Rick.
of her usual quiet and efficient presence — in crisp white uniform,
welcoming guests, taking coats and checking on wait staff — Jett, adorned
with an orchid corsage on a silk black and white dress, mingled about, engaging
in conversation, hugging family and friends.
had her photo taken with then-President Jimmy Carter when he
visited U.Va., but before she left Carr’s Hill, Jett also wanted a photo taken with her
own family, her three children, stepson and five grandchildren. Members of her
extended family and church family also posed with her to commemorate the day.
A last-minute change prevented former President Robert M.
O’Neil and his
family from attending the reception, but Mrs. Karen O’Neil wrote a letter
to Jett that recalled, “One of our proudest and happiest recollections
is of driving with you to Governor [L. Douglas] Wilder’s inauguration.
That was a memorable moment in the history both of Virginia and of our country,
and we were very pleased and gratified that we could celebrate it together as
fellow citizens.” (Wilder was the first African-American to be elected
she may seem inseparable from Carr’s Hill to the many U.Va. people
she knows, Jett didn’t want the job when it was first offered in the early
1970s. She had been working since 1958 in Food Services, at what is now the Fontana
Food Center, and had to be persuaded to take the better-paying position. After
working occasionally for the Shannons (Edgar F. Shannon was U.Va. president until
1974), Jett was interviewed by Ann Hereford, wife of the subsequent president,
Frank L. Hereford, who finally persuaded her to work for the family full-time.
The Herefords inhabited Carr’s Hill more as a private residence, Jett said,
than either of the two successors: O’Neil, president from 1985 to 1990,
and Casteen, who took the top post in 1990.
Jett, who says that modern devices can’t beat dusting with a cloth, said
her job has provided her “a long and happy life.” Although she never
wanted to be a head cook, she admitted following behind the Herefords’ cook
to season the food. Her duties have included grocery shopping and running errands,
cleaning and dishwashing (though now two modern dishwashers help with that task).
Under each president, she has been a loving caretaker to
the children of the household — from keeping the older Hereford boys in line, as Robert Hereford
disclosed with a chuckle, to shuttling Elizabeth and Lars Casteen back and forth
from school. In third grade, Ben O’Neil wrote a school paper about his
friend, Barbara Jett.
Over the years, as fund-raising needs and goals have
increased, so have the number of events at Carr’s Hill. The staff includes a cook and one other housekeeper,
but Jett still has worked overtime on many occasions to make sure the activities
came off without a hitch before turning off the lights and locking up when the
guests said goodnight.
I’ve always tried to make everyone feel welcome and feel at home,” said
Jett, who has extended her hospitality to presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan
and George Bush, among other politicians and dignitaries. One of her secrets
was trying to learn little things about what her guests liked. She won’t
divulge their preferences, but does say she hired bartenders in town who knew
many people in the community, including what they liked filling their glass.
Only once does she remember an event going awry — and then only momentarily — when
a fierce, cold November wind knocked down one side of the tent set up next to
the patio. Dozens of people were quickly ushered inside and dinner resumed.
In 1993, Jett shared the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Award
with Lynda Birckhead, business manager for the president’s office. The
two, already close associates, became close friends. Jett said one of her favorite
parts of the job has been meeting so many good people and making friends.
May the years ahead bring you the same deep gratification that you have provided
to so many others,” wrote Karen O’Neil.
Her family and friends say, in the words of Psalm 28, that she is their strength
and their shield,” Casteen said.
A native of Clover, Va., Jett is looking forward
to spending more time in the days ahead with
especially at her
Myrtle Beach, S.C. Perhaps now she’ll
only have to hold that shield up to the sun
as she relaxes.