A Servant’s Heart
A naval admiral and seven U.S. presidents have described him variously as “trustworthy,” “loyal” and “dedicated” and they all spoke from firsthand experience. Ricardo Sanvictores, whom they commonly addressed as “Sam,” served each of them closely during his 45-year career as a valet and butler.
Following his retirement from service at the White House, Sanvictores moved to North Port, Fla., with his wife, Carmen, in 2006. Having been a devoted servant most of his life, 76-year-old Sanvictores, a Fourth Degree Knight, now dedicates much of his time as a member of North Port Council 7997.
An unassuming, gentle soul, he rarely speaks openly about his past accomplishments, but his wife proudly keeps track of every presidential letter and award he’s received and prominently displays photos of her husband’s White House career in their home.
STEWARD TO ADMIRAL MCCAIN
Born and raised in the Philippines, Sanvictores attended Far Eastern University in Manila, where he earned a degree in commerce and business administration. After graduation, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy.
“Life was hard in the Philippines,” he said. “Jobs weren’t good, so most everybody tried to join the Navy because the United States was recruiting there in 1960.”
At the time, the Philippines was a central hub for U.S. military operations in the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States had a prominent naval base named Sangley Point, located southwest of Manila.
“When I enlisted I didn’t know what I’d do,” Sanvictores said. “We had to take an exam to see where we would be best suited.”
For him, that meant working as a steward to high-ranking U.S. officials. At age 24, Sanvictores was sent to work for Adm. John S. McCain Jr. in Little Creek, Va., where he became part of the admiral’s household staff and, later, his personal travel assistant.
“I took care of his clothes, his meals, ran his errands,” Sanvictores recalled. “When we traveled and he went out at night, I’d stay in his room to protect all his valuables, especially his papers and sensitive materials. If there was an emergency, I was the one sent in to wake him up.”
Sanvictores was on hand in 1967 when the admiral received word that his son, Lt. Cmd. John S. McCain III, was shot down over Vietnam. The future presidential candidate and longtime senator from Arizona was a prisoner of war for nearly six years.
“It was a very hard time,” Sanvictores said. “He was really sad and asked that I pray for his son. I knew the whole family the kids and the grandkids. After so many years of working for the same family, they too became like family. They entrusted me with so much.”
The great respect he had for Adm. McCain was mutual. Upon his retirement, the admiral recommended Sanvictores for a position at the White House.
“The outstanding standard of performance you have set will serve as a fine example to all, and is the principal reason why I consider it a personal pleasure to have served with you,” wrote Adm. McCain at the time.
Working for the admiral meant that Sanvictores already had the necessary security clearance, so his path to Pennsylvania Avenue seemed to have been prepared in advance, even if it was unexpected.
A natural diplomat, Sanvictores never found it an issue to serve presidents from either party with the same dedication, loyalty and friendship.
“We don’t do politics; we just do our job,” Sanvictores said. “It’s not our business, even if we have our own opinions. I just do my job and that’s it.”
Still, his decades of service and travel with the presidents were more than just a job, since he became invested in each of their lives. He has nothing negative to say about any of the presidents he served, since he was close to them all.
WHITE HOUSE SERVICE
At the start of his White House career, Sanvictores arrived during the last three months of President Richard Nixon’s term, before his resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal. As a result, Nixon is the president that Sanvictores knew the least. However, he came to know President Gerald Ford very well.
“I started working as a valet for him,” Sanvictores said. “Those who worked for him found out that I had worked for Adm. McCain, so they made me his assistant.”
As the president’s personal attendant, Sanvictores did whatever Ford asked of him from prepping his clothes to bringing his meals, and everything in between. Sanvictores also accompanied President Ford and his family on vacations to Vale, Colo., and said the president loved to ski.
From firsthand experience, he learned similar facts about each of the presidents he served.
According to Sanvictores, President Jimmy Carter was a quiet, hard worker. “When he was working in his library, no one was able to disturb him except me,” he said.
President Carter, he added, was in the Oval Office by 5 a.m., and Sanvictores would be there waiting to serve him. Most days, Sanvictores did not return home until after dinner, and if there were any parties at the White House, his workday lasted until midnight.
Sanvictores then served throughout the two-term presidency of Ronald Reagan, whom he described, along with First Lady Nancy, as “sociable and friendly.”
“President Reagan was something else,” Sanvictores added. “He was very charismatic a natural.”
Carmen Sanvictores recalled that President Reagan would often say of her husband, “He always makes me look good.”
President George H.W. Bush was the last president that Sanvictores served as a personal valet. Sanvictores has fond memories of playing horseshoes with Bush, who hosted an annual tournament at the White House and often played at his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
When he left office, President Bush wrote to Sanvictores saying, “To say that we still miss you is the classic understatement of the year. We will always be grateful for all that you did to make us so happy in those challenging, wonderful days.”
After 30 years of service, Sanvictores retired from the Navy in 1990 as a master chief petty officer, the highest rank of an enlisted sailor.
But Sanvictores’ White House career wasn’t quite over. He applied for a civilian job as the White House butler and served President Bill Clinton in that capacity.
“In some ways it was a much easier job,” Sanvictores recalled. “As a butler I only took care of serving meals and setting up for parties but President Clinton had a lot of parties.”
Sanvictores retired as the White House butler two years into President George W. Bush’s presidency in 2003, but because the staff would often call him for help, he stayed on an additional two years as the part-time butler until permanently leaving the White House in 2005.
He already knew the Bush family because of his work for the senior George Bush and appreciated how they, like the other presidential families, were very “normal and down-to-earth.”
Carmen Sanvictores recalled that the president would joke with her husband, saying, “Imagine, you served seven presidents and you still look good.”
To this day, the Sanvictores still visit with the Bushes, who invite them to their vacation home in nearby Boca Grande, Fla., every year.
SACRIFICE AND DEDICATION
There is no question that Sanvictores’ years of service took a toll on his family life. Working at the White House sometimes caused tension with his wife, Carmen, as the brunt of raising their three children fell squarely on her shoulders.
“With God’s help our marriage survived and our family remained intact,” Sanvictores said. “My only regret was not seeing my kids grow.”
Over the decades, the presidents each expressed gratitude to Carmen for understanding the demands of her husband’s work. “They knew of the sacrifice we were making as a family for him to be there to serve them,” she said.
“Prayers can move mountains,” Carmen added. “It’s true that a family that prays together stays together. To this day we are all close.”
The couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in January, and Sanvictores also celebrated 50 years of being Catholic. Raised Methodist, his decision to become Catholic was partly due to his wife, but he also felt comfortable with the Catholic Church since most of his family and friends were Catholic. It was the Eucharist, the sacraments and the Blessed Mother that kept him strong in the faith.
Now his wife jokes, “He’s more Catholic than me!”
The same dedication he gave to the White House, Sanvictores now gives to the Knight of Columbus. He first joined the Order in 1988, during the Reagan administration, and became a Fourth Degree member in 2007. A charter member of San Pedro Assembly 3163, he has served as the treasurer for North Port Council 7997 for the past seven years.
“He’s so busy with the Knights now, it’s like he’s back at the White House,” Carmen said.
As far as Sanvictores is concerned, his Catholic faith continues to guide him, praying the rosary daily as he carries out his tasks, just as he did during those busy years in Washington, D.C.
“Without prayer and faith in God we wouldn’t have what we have,” he said.
NADIA SMITH is a correspondent for the Florida Catholic, the newspaper of the Diocese of Venice.