Exactly 200 years after George Washington moved onto Mount Vernon Estate with his new wife Martha in 1759, Ernest Lee Embrey, Jr., moved off the Estate with his new wife Pattsy in 1959. But, Embrey actually spent far more time there than The General ever came close to realizing.
Having moved onto the Estate at the age of five when his father Ernest Lee Embrey, Sr., took a job there is 1944, Lee Embrey recently retired after 50 years of service to America's original "white" house. That is a tradition in the Embrey family.
His father worked there for 42 years and his brother Rusty is still employed there with 40 years of service. Lee's brother-in-law, James McVee, retired from the Estate three years ago after a 48 year career.
"I started in grounds maintenance when I was 16. Then I went into the greenhouse until 1961. From there I went to security. That's what I was doing when I retired," Embrey said as he reflected back over his half century of dedication to Washington's home.
Lee Embrey's father and mother lived on the Estate until 1977 when the elder Embrey retired. "I started school from there," Lee recalled. He attended Woodlawn Elementary School and graduated from Mount Vernon High School in 1958.
"From 1961 to 1972 I worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift in Security. One of the real pluses was that I got to meet a lot of very interesting people," he said.
"Then in 1972 Charles Wall, who was the executive director of Mount Vernon at that time, came to Gerald Petit and me and said we were being promoted to security supervisors. Petit was going to be the head supervisor and I was to be the assistant," Embrey explained.
"The only problem was that Petit liked working the night shift and I wanted the day shift. But, Wall made it just the other way around so he could meet with the head supervisor every day," he said. So from 1972 until June 4, 2006 Lee Embrey became the keeper of Mount Vernon Estate while it slept. Or did it?
"Lee is one of the best story tellers I have ever met. He can convince you ghosts actually exist in the Mansion. And, he contends some of them are his best friends," said James Rees, executive director, Mount Vernon Estate.
"He is truly an institution at Mount Vernon and we are really going to miss him. He is one of those people that is always positive. He believe the glass is always half full rather than half empty," Rees said.
THAT CHARACTERIZATION was buttressed by two of Embrey's friends, his next door neighbor, Thelma Hurst, and another neighborhood friend Helen Walutes. "I've known Lee for 40 years and he will do anything for anybody at any time," said Hurst.
"He's got the biggest heart in the neighborhood. Anyone who needs something goes to Lee. He is truly a good hearted individual," she said.
That was seconded by Walutes who has known Embrey since she first came to Northern Virginia. "When I moved here I had never seen boxwood or knew anything about growing them. But, Lee and Gerald Petit did an awful lot to teach me about plants," she said.
"But, Lee was also a good family friend. In addition to working at Mount Vernon he also drove a tow truck for Little Detroit Towing Company. My kids knew if they had a problem on the road all they had to do was call Lee. I could count on him to help them no matter what," Walutes said.
EMBREY HAS WORKED FOR six Mount Vernon directors. "I've gotten along very well with all of them. Mr. Wall was probably the strictest but he was also very fair," Embrey said.
"He was the one that predicted there would be a big museum here one day. He told me one night, I won't see it Lee but you will," Embrey related.
"It really did come to pass. And, it's going to be a great addition and a great experience for visitors," he said. That museum and visitors center is scheduled to officially open this October.
One of the worst memories Embrey has of his 50 year journey at Mount Vernon occurred on a night in 1951. "We had a barn burn down from an electrical short and we lost five horses. I'll never forget that," he said.
On the lighter side he recalled, "We had a man who tried to knock down the main gate. He thought he was at the White House in DC. He drove his white van right across the circle and hit the gate. He wasn't real coherent."
"We called the Park Police. When they heard his story about ramming the White House they turned him over to the Secret Service. Never heard another thing about that guy," Embrey said.
"After Martin Luther King gave his speech at the Lincoln Memorial a lot of the people wandered down here because DC was so packed. Some of them tried to jump the wall but none made it," Embrey said.
"We've come a long way since I started, particularly with the increased communications capabilities. For years we had dogs that patrolled with us until the lawyers got nervous. First they made us put them on a leash. I preferred to have them free roaming because they can sense things you can't," Embrey said. He took two of those dogs home when they were retired.
As far as having a sixth sense, Gerald Petit, who worked with Embrey for 48 years and has known him for 55 years, attributes a very strong extra sensory ability to Embrey. "Nobody could hear like him. He could hear deer walking in the woods a couple of hundred yards away and could hear people talking at a great distance," Petit said.
"Lee knew every nook and cranny of the Estate. Nothing got past him. He was so good at catching trespassers. We made a great team. The 48 years we spent working together at Mount Vernon were a lot of fun," he said.
BUT, RETIREMENT FOR EMBREY just means changing gears, and not on his motorcycle which he rode for many years. A member of the Izaak Walton League, he has been a dedicated conservationist most of his adult life.
He served as president of the Virginia Chapter of the League for 16 years and is now a national director and first vice president of the Virginia division for the conservation organization based in Gathersburg, MD. He also serves on the Alexandria Chapter Board of Directors.
"Clean air and clean water are the primary issues in this area. That is also a national priority," Embrey said.
He is concerned about over development in the area. "I can remember when you could drive from Mount Vernon to Fort Belvoir and only see a few houses. Now development is everywhere," he said.
Embrey likes to not only see the countryside but also get to know it. "I drove from here to the West Coast for a League meeting because I wanted to see the country. Now, I'm getting ready to go to the convention that's being held this year in Springfield, Missouri," Embrey said.
"Being active in the Izaak Walton League has afforded me the opportunity to see a great deal of this country. Probably a lot
that I wouldn't have seen otherwise," he said. During the rest of his spare time he's "catching up on house repairs. There's always something to be done."
There is also more time for the Embreys to spend with their two daughters, who live in the area, as well as their three grandcildren and one great-grandchild. "But, they were really good years at Mount Vernon," Embrey said.