An honor of a lifetime came this year for longtime chimney sweep Jack Pixley.
The view of the South Lawn and Washington Monument was spectacular from atop a White House chimney where Andover chimney sweep business owner Jack Pixley perched last month.
You might say the spritely sweep, who likes to sport a Charles Dickens-style top hat, had reached the pinnacle of his profession in Washington, D.C.: cleaning the president’s chimneys, which offer some of the nation’s most impressive views and tightest roof-top security.
Pixley, a 63-year-old educator who started sweeping on the chimney of his Iron Ranger father’s farmhouse, was one of seven sweeps chosen for the biennial honor of sweeping presidential flues for free. The sweeps, certified by the industry’s national safety institute, are chosen for the White House service by a group of National Chimney Sweep Guild members. The sweeps can’t mention their White House service in their advertising, but can be interviewed by reporters about it.
“You will not see a sign in my booth saying, ‘I swept the White House,’ ” Pixley said last week at his State Fair booth in the Home Improvement Building. His passion about his work (he’s a retired school shop teacher) and chimney safety education have led him to man a chimney safety and information booth at the State Fair since 1979, shortly after he started Jack Pixley Sweeps. For eight of those years Pixley wore black sweep attire and top hat in his fair parade float. He was accompanied in his Ford pickup by a lady on a calliope playing “Chim-Chim Cher-ee” from the movie “Mary Poppins,” which was sung by a London chimney sweep (played by Dick Van Dyke).
But this year the 208-year-old White House trumped the State Fair on opening day for Pixley, who was returning from his Washington trip.
While on roof-top security business at the Capitol, Pixley helped sweep seven of the 35 wood-burning fireplace chimneys from Aug. 18-20. Afterward the sweeps and spouses were given a curator tour of White House rooms where presidents have made decisions affecting national and global affairs since John Adams arrived in 1800.
Many White House fireplaces are barely used. But not the one in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office.
“His was the dirtiest,” Pixley said. “He must really enjoy a good fire.”
Pixley got to sweep the Lincoln Bedroom, where he saw a handwritten-copy of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “To be able to read that in his handwriting,” Pixley said. “It was an honor.”
The sweeps brushed and vacuumed out soot and used closed-circuit cameras to examine chimney interiors for problems. The White House keeps the videos and forbids the sweeps from talking about security precautions. Pixley said only that he was impressed by several Secret Service agents on the roof with them.
The sweep groups rarely see a president, but President George Bush made an exception two years ago to talk with a sweep group that included a Missouri man whose son was killed while serving in Iraq, said Jeff Schmittinger, a Wisconsin sweep in charge of the White House program.
The trip highlight for Pixley was White House butler William (Buddy) Carter, who has served presidents since the 1970s. He also spent a lot of time on and below the roof with the sweeps.
“Buddy is special,” Pixley said. “He talked with such emotion about how special a place it is to work,” Pixley said. “He had nothing but complimentary things to say about the presidents he served. He said one president was truly special.”
That would be George H. W. Bush, whom Buddy served during his term. The elder Bush used to have coffee with Buddy in the kitchen, and “he called Buddy when he lost a son in a car accident,” Pixley related.
Pixley, who is on the praise team at his Baptist church, was encouraged to find that a few lines from a letter by Adams were engraved on a stone fireplace mantle under Lincoln’s portrait in the State Dining Room. Sometimes called the White House Prayer, the excerpt reads: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this house and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”