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Volunteer Chimney Sweeps Spiff Up White House

The White House this week turned its attention to a modest domestic initiative: the cleaning and maintenance of its 35 chimneys.

For the past 18 years, the job has gone to a team run by Jeff Schmittinger, the owner of Waukesha-based Wisconsin Chimney Technicians.

Aside from longevity, the team has another advantage: They’re free.

In 1993, Schmittinger was so moved by President Bill Clinton’s appeal for a balanced budget that he called the White House to offer his services to the country. After undergoing a year and a half of security clearances, complete with Secret Service agents descending on his sleepy Midwestern hometown, Schmittinger won the job.

He’s been cleaning White House chimneys at no cost to taxpayers ever since.

“I called them up and volunteered,” he said. “It’s the one thing I could do better than anything else. I don’t think I really expected them to actually take me up on it.”

Schmittinger’s team of eight chimney sweepers includes his wife, who in chimney sweep parlance is the team’s “gopher.”

“She moves the furniture and sets all the drop cloths,” Schmittinger said. “She makes sure we don’t leave any fingerprints anywhere. When we leave the White House, it’s still a white house.”

The cleaning happens once every two years, and Schmittinger replaces half his crew before each trip. He says it keeps the team sharp and encourages a sense of community for chimney-sweeping professionals.

“I don’t want people to become complacent,” he said. “Plus, it’s one heck of an honor, and there are a lot of people in the industry who deserve the privilege.”

In addition to staffing the team with local Wisconsin chimney sweeps, Schmittinger accepts nominations from the National Chimney Sweeping Guild.

“We look for people who have made contributions, not just to chimney sweeping but also to their communities,” he said. “We know if we do this right it will continue, and I want to see this last for 100 years.”

This year, Bart Ogden of Wichita, Kan., and Phil Mitchell of Newmarket, N.H., made their first trips to the White House. To calm the nerves of the rookies and to help the rest of the team focus on the day ahead, Schmittinger gives a pep talk the night before.

“I tell the guys what a blessing this is and that I have no idea why God chose me to coordinate it all, but I’m thankful that he did,” Schmittinger said. “There’s not a guy on my team who wouldn’t give the shirt off his back for someone new to the industry or struggling in it. That’s what’s great about these people, and [the fact] that we do this for free really exemplifies that.”

The cleaning takes place during August recess, so it’s rare for the team to meet any lawmakers. Still, one trip stands out.

“In 2006 we took some military vets onto the team,” Schmittinger said. “President [George W.] Bush really appreciates the men and women in armed services, and he did something real special by meeting with us. One of the fellas was a Vietnam vet whose son had been killed by a roadside bomb. He talked to the president about the loss of his son, and his wife said that was the most therapeutic thing he’d undergone since it happened.”

The crew rolled into town Sunday and worked out of the White House on Monday and Tuesday. Schmittinger said that between sweeping and video scanning (there have been considerable advances in chimney maintenance technology since the days of “Mary Poppins”), each chimney takes about two hours to complete.

Every year, they celebrate at the nearby Old Ebbitt Grill once the job is done.

“We go in the back and have a few drinks,” Schmittinger said. “And if you show up, you better like oysters. We kill more oysters than anyone in the District.”

Despite how long he’s been at it, Schmittinger doesn’t take even one moment of the experience for granted.

“I go up to the roof of the White House and I just have to pinch myself,” he said. “You look down on these folks sticking their cameras through the fence and you know they’d give anything to change places with you. I mean, that’s what’s so great about this country. How does this happen to a chimney sweeper from Waukesha?”

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