SMALL TOWNS: A front row witness to American history inside the White House

Irene was a drama teacher until one year she was invited to Washington, DC, and landed at the Paris Peace Accords.
Updated: Mar. 17, 2022 at 6:10 PM CDT
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OSHKOSH, Wis. (WBAY) - It’s a career experience the vast majority of us can only imagine, working as a secretary for not just one, but four U.S. Presidents.

This week in Small Towns, we traveled to Oshkosh to meet an eyewitness to American history.

Inside Evergreen Retirement Community, 85-year old Irene Derus takes us back in time.

JEFF: “You went all over the world?”

IRENE: “Oh yeah. What was it like traveling? Wonderful.”

After growing up in Oshkosh and graduating from Marquette University in 1962, Irene spent nine years as a drama teacher. One summer her older sister Pat, who worked for the U.S. Department of State, invited Irene to Washington D.C.

“Since I was a teacher, in the summer I didn’t teach so she said, ‘why don’t you come out and help us here,’ and so I did, and I thought, oh boy, I’d really like to stay here, so I did,” recalls Irene.

Irene landed a job in the administrative office of the National Security Council.

It wasn’t long before she was filling in for secretaries at the White House.

“Whenever someone was going on vacation I would take their place,” explains Irene.

In March 1972, a major promotion. Irene became the primary secretary for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

A year later, she would be front and center at the negotiating table for the historic Paris Peace Accords, which Kissinger acknowledged in one of his books.

“The next day, October 11th, we continued launching ourselves, though we did not realize it, into a marathon session that lasted 16 hours. The transcript of that session covers 122 single pages, the hope and dedication that animated every member of our delegation was shone by my secretary Irene Derus who took stenographic notes throughout the meeting, she declined offers to relieve her, partly because the meeting would crop up, but more truly because she wanted to participate in the historic event of ending the Vietnam War,” reads Irene. (Jeff) You were there? Yep,” smiles Irene.

Irene also traveled extensively with President Richard Nixon.

“A gift from the Government of Poland on the occasion of President Nixon’s visit in 1972,” reads Irene, from a card next to a crystal vase displayed in her home.

Her most fond memories of the Nixon Administration though, are of First Lady Pat Nixon.

“Mrs. Nixon, she was wonderful because when they had people coming from another country, the President would meet them, but they would always have entertainment for them, so when they would have entertainment, we could come to it too,” says Irene.

After Nixon’s impeachment for the Watergate scandal, Vice President Gerald Ford became the 38th President.

A devout Republican, Irene left the White House when Jimmy Carter was elected President.

But she was back four years later-to serve under Ronald Reagan, her favorite.

“And every time he passed by my desk, ‘Good morning Irene, how are you today?’”

Irene describes Reagan as a warm, kind man who treated everyone like family.

“And when he got shot that time, oh, I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Irene.

Irene’s White House tenure continued under President George H.W. Bush, but only for a few years.

“My father passed away and then I came back home so I could help take care of my mother,” explains Irene.

For nearly 20 years, Irene had a front row seat at historic, top secret meetings in the White House and beyond-in countries like Russia, China and Iran to name just a few-travels that endeared her to the pilots of Air Force One.

“You were part of many of these trips, some of them secret, I hope you enjoy our stories and adventures, I have thought of you often, best wishes, Ralph Albertazzie,” reads Irene, from a book autographed for her from Albertazzie.

A career truly like any other.

“You were always close to the President,” says Irene.

Irene Derus never married and never had children, instead she traveled the world with U.S. Presidents and their cabinet members, living out what she describes as an amazing life.

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