UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Spring 2008
[photo finish]
Sweet Spot in the President’s Office
Documenting the comings and goings of four Commanders in Chief was all in a day's work for alumna with a behind-the-scenes job in the White House
by Trisha J. Ratledge

After 21 years of scheduling photographers to cover every official event of four U.S. presidents, Marilyn (Qualiato) Jacanin ’63 (B.A.)

finally became the subject in the lens herself. A friend documented Jacanin’s last hours in the West Wing and, as twilight gathered, she captured Jacanin passing through the gate into her retirement.

“It was emotional because once you go out, it’s never the same,” says Jacanin, who keeps that framed image from 2005 on her dresser. “You can come back as a guest, but once you lose your pass, then you’ve lost your privileges of being on the compound.”

As deputy director for operations in the White House Photo Office, Jacanin worked with the photo director, four photographers and two editors. The office chronicles the activities of the president and first lady, as well as the vice president and his wife, for news stories, press releases, presidential mementos and the National Archives. Jacanin served four presidents — Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Jacanin was on the short list of staffers who received the president’s detailed daily schedule, and very few doors were closed to her. The Oval Office, Air Force One and the famed West Wing all became her front office and workroom. Historic events and world leaders were a part of Jacanin’s working day. Hers was a behind-the-scenes job in a privileged arena.

It was also a job she never expected to have. In 1984, Jacanin was a homemaker raising two sons while her husband, a career naval aviator, worked at the Pentagon. She volunteered on Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign and when he won, she applied for one of the White House openings. Jacanin was hired into the Photo Office, and quickly discovered she had a sweet spot in the administration.

“Our office was very popular because we had what everybody wanted, a picture with the president,” she says.

It didn’t take long for Jacanin’s passport — already well-worn by travels to meet her husband in their newlywed years — to become downright dog-eared.

“I’ve been to Russia, Korea, Australia, almost every country in Western Europe, Japan, India, Africa,” she says. “I did the most traveling with the Clinton administration.

He was very international.” The travel came with its challenges: critically short deadlines, establishing photo labs on the fly in foreign countries and long days with few breaks. But the perks were memorable, from staying in five-star hotels to shopping for the finest goods in a showcase assembled by each nation’s first lady.

When Jacanin graduated from USD, she never imagined a career in the West Wing, and she considers her experience an important lesson for all.

“I majored in sociology and minored in education,” says Jacanin, who taught for five years after college. “My advice is to learn as much as you can about dealing with people and have a good attitude, because you don’t know where life is going to take you. I never thought I would be at the White House. You just never know.”