Editor’s note: College of Education graduate Meg Murer Tortorello ’91 sorted through the mail for President George W. Bush for two years. She shares her memories of the unique White House experience in her own words.
In 1991 I proudly walked across the stage in the Bone Student Center to accept my diploma as a special education teacher. While I didn’t quite realize the amazing opportunities that were ahead, I knew Illinois State University had armed me with the knowledge, skills, and values to contribute to our society and perform at the highest levels.
Ten years later I had the opportunity to serve in the President George W. Bush Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce, and later moved over to Presidential Correspondence at the White House. I worked there from 2004 to 2006, initially as deputy director, and then as a commissioned officer. I served as special assistant to the president and director of Presidential Correspondence. I led the largest office in the White House.
The job reminded me of lessons learned while sitting in lectures on ISU’s campus. I remember being challenged to ask questions, probe issues, have independent views, and speak up. This reflected the freedom of our country, which I witnessed every day that I worked at Presidential Correspondence.
The incoming mail, faxes, e-mails, and phone calls ranged every week from thousands to tens of thousands. I was constantly impressed with what inspired people to write the president. Citizens would write about immigration, Social Security, September 11th, their teachers, our military, the economy, their family, their jobs or lack of jobs, salmon, trees, and every topic you could imagine.
Letters arrived in every possible form—from notebook paper and backs of envelopes, to patriotic note cards and formal business reports. All people needed were a writing utensil and a scrap of paper, and they would write the president. Communication didn’t stop with hard mail. The faxes constantly whirled, and the e-mails poured in to the White House.
The length and styles varied but the sentiment was the same—we live in a country where we are free to voice an opinion. Countless citizens embraced the opportunity to reach out to the president. Every letter, card, and e-mail contained an insight into a corner of America, and we listened to every voice. The mail analysis team poured over every communication, with pencil in hand, carefully coding it to help shepherd it to the appropriate area in the administration.
The student mail often provided frequent laughter. One day a colleague came into my office and showed me a letter from a young lad in St. Louis who wanted the president to go to a St. Louis Rams game with him because he appreciated the president keeping him safe, and he thought the president would like the nachos. The lad had included an expensive season holder ticket with his letter. Since the president cannot accept monetary gifts or items such as tickets, we needed to send it back.
We sent a very nice letter from the president, as well as one under my signature on our more formal letterhead with the ticket enclosed. We worried my letter would arrive first, so we called to let the parents know about the soon-to-be-arriving letters from the White House. Now it is always great to call a citizen and say, “This is the White House,” as many people don’t quite believe you. When they realize it is a legitimate call, they are very excited.
The mom answered the phone and was doubly surprised, as she had no idea her son had written the president. He had gone into the parent’s desk, looked up the address on the Internet, and sent off the letter. He also joined the call and was thrilled that the White House had called, and that the president was sending him a letter.
While at Illinois State University I was a member of Delta Delta Delta sorority. The organizational and leadership skills I learned through the sorority and ISU provided me with the tools to succeed at the White House. I learned how to belong to an organization larger than myself, how the collective power of many can produce enormous results, and how to always be focused on people. From these experiences at ISU, I learned the importance of “digging your well before you need it.”
With a staff of 65 and more than 500 volunteers, I believed collectively we could accomplish significant results during critical times. To build that collective force I conducted presidential celebration writing events. There is a long history of people sending wedding, baby, and anniversary announcements to the president and first lady. The White House receives enormous amounts of announcements, and yet the first couple sends back lovely congratulatory announcements that are hand addressed. On Tuesdays and Thursdays for one hour we would gather staff in the conference area. Everyone would address envelopes, sort announcements, and check addresses. In a short time the president and first lady were able to congratulate tens of thousands of happy citizens.
A favorite part of the greetings department was seeing the darling baby announcements, cute wedding invitations, and anniversary photos of happy couples. We had a bulletin board that displayed many of the happy occasions, and it was always inspiring to see the joyous smiles. Having dug our well when trying to educate consumers on big issue—such as immigration, social security, education, and Supreme Court nominations—we would call on all staff to assist with pushing out letters to citizens. The cooperative spirit allowed us to be focused and advance the president’s agenda. This also allowed us to have a strong system in place when Hurricane Katrina struck.
Hurricane Katrina was a difficult time for our country. The calls poured into the White House for help, and offers of assistance. We quickly mobilized our team by expanding the incoming phone lines, and working long into the nights and weekends. Staff took down information of stranded citizens and compassionate organizations offering food, shelter, and supplies. We worked behind the scenes with FEMA and the American Red Cross to share information and connect people and resources.
Besides serving in the administration during September 11th, Katrina was the most intense time of my public service. We worked diligently to try to help as many citizens as possible. During these round-the-clock calls, the creativity of the American people broke through. Callers offered suggestions on how to prevent future hurricanes, such as installing giant air bags along the ocean shoreline and deploying them when a hurricane approaches; creating enormous sponges that the military would drop into the ocean when a hurricane approaches and would then whisk away the water when a hurricane hit; and deploying missiles into a storm to break up the system.
I have moved on from my White House days, and now reside in Chicago with my husband, Tony. I am senior vice president of public affairs for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. We represent more than 1,000 homes, auto, and business insurance companies. I remain so grateful to the University, and maintain strong campus ties. I have a Redbird family, as my brother Sergio Murer ’85 and his wife, Liz (Brown), M.S. ’87, of Rochester are graduates. My sister-in-law, Holly (Strubbe) Murer ’90 of Chicago was a Tri Delta with me and also graduated from ISU.
When I reflect back on my time in Presidential Correspondence, I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to listen to the voice of the American people. This has been a challenging year for our country with the economic crisis and global turmoil. Yet as I read in countless letters to the president, we are a resilient country that believes in freedom, is rooted in strong values, and has deep faith in our military, our country, and our presidents. More people than anyone could ever imagine are praying for our country, are envisioning ways to improve our economy, and are working to keep us safe.
As another Redbird walks the halls I once walked, I know he will benefit from working with the talented people in Presidential Correspondence and the White House. I wish him the best as he cares for the voices of the American people