Forty years ago Saturday in the East Room of the White House, Gertrude Fry broke down into tears.
It was 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1974. After sharing his intentions on national television the night before, President Richard Nixon was announcing his resignation to Cabinet members and personnel.
“It was the saddest day,” said Fry, of Adamstown. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Fry, now 89, worked as Nixon’s staff assistant for security. She would soon remain in the White House as a joint custodian of the historic Watergate tapes.
Like many others, she heard Watergate unfold on the radio. The story is American history legend now: a president’s resignation following the 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters by burglars tied to Nixon’s re-election committee, digging for information on his political opponents.
But that morning was one announcement in a long line of bombshells that would shake the U.S. political establishment for years to come.
“I walked back into the West Wing, and President (Gerald) Ford’s secretary was straightening the desk,” she said. “It just shows you, the helicopter went up and life goes on.”
Then-unmarried Trudy Brown worked for U.S. Steel Corp. until a change in leadership spurred her to leave the company in the 1960s. The longtime Nixon admirer decided to try her hand in his campaign.
One of the oldest volunteers, the 43-year-old Manhattanite landed a job answering letters and handling policy statements in Nixon’s New York mailroom alongside his brother, Edward, and Barbara Franklin, the future secretary of commerce.
When Nixon was elected, campaign workers were invited to apply for positions in his administration. Fry requested a place in the State Department, having dealt with international business at U.S. Steel. She never thought she’d work in the White House.
But a few days before Nixon’s first inauguration in 1969, she was offered a job as staff assistant for security. In that position, Fry received FBI reports on all presidential staff appointments and reviewed each candidate for hire. If she saw anything that might be troublesome, she was to report it to a superior: first Egil “Bud” Krogh, a staff assistant to the presidential counsel; and later Alexander Butterfield, the staff assistant who revealed the existence of the Watergate tapes.
The Special Files Unit was created in September 1972 as a central storage location for sensitive material, according to the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Fry was appointed as supervisor, cataloging documents from Nixon’s handwritten files to confidential security information in an Old Executive Office Building vault.
It was in that job that Fry first became acquainted with members of the now-infamous Committee to Re-elect the President, or “CREEP.” She never thought much of them.
“If (superiors) had listened to some of the comments I made ... when they were hiring some of those people, I think they would have been better off not to have hired them,” she said of the re-election committee members.
“They had done such stupid things in the past. ... I just wrote my little notes and called their attention to it, but they hired them anyway.”
Fry was fond of most co-workers: Krogh was “adorable”; John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, was respected; Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman was “sort of stiff.”
Nixon himself was a friend from afar; though Fry was never invited to the residence, the president arranged for her and her fiancé, Edward, to marry at the Navy Chapel in Washington. Among Fry’s prized possessions is a ceramic bird sent by Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon as a wedding gift.
The commander in chief was a hard worker but shy, Fry said. His wife was stylish and graceful.
The West Wing was a family. Then an investigation changed everything.
In February 1975, six months after Nixon’s resignation, the Ford administration put Fry in charge of a new Special Files room. No one told her what the second vault held: the Watergate tapes, audio conversations on the break-in and other abuses of power that ultimately ended Nixon’s second term.
“I didn’t know there were such a thing as tapes until they became public,” Fry said. “I did nothing with the tapes until long after Watergate and long after the president was gone.”
With assistance from the Secret Service, which was responsible for the physical safety of the recordings, Fry gave access to and pulled tapes on request from April 3, 1975, until Aug. 8, 1977, according to the Nixon library.
Everything was documented by a lawyer when taken out and loaned for a trial. Secret Service agents were ever-present in her office, “mainly so I would not destroy anything,” she said.
Though Special Files was abolished in June 1975, Fry was asked to stay through the Ford administration and seven months into President Jimmy Carter’s first year in 1977. The tapes were given to the National Archives that August.
Even 40 years later, she said, “I’ve never listened to them.”
Fry continued to handle Special Files when Ford took office in August 1974.
“I didn’t want to leave,” she said. “Ford was going to try to heal the country, and I wanted to be part of that.”
Nixon’s and Ford’s staffs were older and more serious than Carter’s, who were informal and inexperienced in federal government. She knew she had to lend a hand.
She also testified at the trials of her former bosses. Nixon loved the country, Fry said, and he loved being president.
Fry believes the men involved in Watergate were simply following orders in Nixon’s best interest.
“I never thought the president would be involved with it at all,” she said. “I’m sure that he didn’t (know) until the end, that he was dragged into it.”
“If Ehrlichman and Haldeman heard about it, knew about it,” she said, it “would have been better if they’d handled it on their own.”
After leaving the Carter administration, Fry joined the U.S. Supreme Court on Chief Justice Warren Burger’s staff. Before her retirement, she worked with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as assistant marshal.
Fry and her husband moved to his native Frederick County in 2002. He died in 2004; the Edward F. Fry Library at Point of Rocks was dedicated in his memory.
The walls of Fry’s Adamstown home are a shrine to White Houses of years past. Signed photographs of Nixon, Ford and Carter thank Fry for her service. Five framed presidential Christmas letters hang in the hall.
The back of a photo of Ehrlichman and Nixon walking on the Camp David grounds bears a personal touch: Ehrlichman scrawled a note of thanks for keeping them out of trouble.
Krogh, who co-directed the unit that ordered the break-in, also wrote her a letter during his four months in prison. That letter is now kept in one of several scrapbooks documenting the era.
Fry is, quite literally, keeper of the keys: The last page in one large binder holds the keys to the vault that housed the Nixon tapes. She asked to keep them when the room closed in 1977.
Looking back, Fry still blames Watergate on the re-election committee. Nixon never should have covered it up, she said, and she hopes the public can remember him for opening China and signing the National Cancer Act.
“I don’t think Watergate should be a big part of President Nixon’s legacy,” she said. “So many people hate him, but if they knew him, they wouldn’t.”
Follow Rachel S. Karas on Twitter: @rachelkaras.