John McCoy once sampled Ronald Reagan’s jelly beans

One day back in the 1980s, John McCoy was heading into work. One of his neighbors spotted him as McCoy was about to enter the building.

“My neighbor saw me and said, ‘John McCoy, what are you doing here?’” McCoy said. At 64, he’s now a member of the state House of Representatives and general manager of Quil Ceda Village at Tulalip.

From 1982 to ‘85, though, McCoy was employed elsewhere — and not many people knew where.

“My family knew,” McCoy said last week from Olympia.

The day he saw his neighbor, he was entering the north side of the White House, near the entrance for public tours.

“My neighbor was standing in the visitors’ line,” McCoy said. “During the time I worked there, they asked us not to say where we were working.”

McCoy was a computer technician, and he was working in the White House Situation Room. Ronald Reagan was president at the time.

Retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1981 after 20 years in the service, McCoy was employed by Sperry Univac. Then part of the Sperry Rand Corp., Sperry Univac made and marketed computing systems for industry and government.

Through the Air Force, Mc­Coy got an early introduction to computers. Beginning in the mid-1960s, he had extensive training in computer operations and programming.

Sperry Univac, McCoy said, had a contract with the White House. “Our job was to automate presidential communications,” he said. Back then, McCoy said, the president’s “high-speed” communications still involved rotary phones and fax machines.

It’s easy to forget that IBM’s first desktop personal computers didn’t start rolling off assembly lines until 1981. “We deployed those,” McCoy said of bringing the White House, nearly two centuries old in the 1980s, into the personal computer era. “My area of responsibility was the Situation Room.”

McCoy recalled how he’d start every work day. From his entrance, he’d go down to the White House basement, through tunnels leading to the other side of the building, past a kitchen, and then up to the Situation Room.

Remodeled in 2006, the White House Situation Room is now a 5,000-square-foot complex on the West Wing’s lower level. It’s equipped with a secure communications system and staffed by intelligence and military officials. When he worked there, McCoy said “it could only hold about 12 of us, minus the president. His briefing room was right next door.”

If you’re anything like me, you don’t much care about the technical details of McCoy’s White House job.

Did he and President Reagan have nice conversations? Did he get to see Nancy Reagan? And what about politics? McCoy is a Democrat, representing the 38th Legislative District that includes Marysville, Tulalip and Everett.

“I’d always been a moderate,” McCoy said. “Sometimes I would vote for a Republican, sometimes a Democrat.”

And yes, he often saw Reagan, but there was no friendly chitchat.

“The rules of the road were, whenever you see the president coming, you back up against the wall and not say anything to him; you let him pass. No communication,” McCoy said. “I’ve seen Nancy. And George (Bush) senior and Barbara. I rode the elevator a lot with Barbara Bush and her security detail, but I wasn’t allowed to talk with her.”

Everywhere, there was evidence of Reagan’s well-known fondness for jelly beans. The president was such a fan that the Jelly Belly Candy Co. concocted a blueberry flavor so that red, white and blue jelly beans could be part of inaugural celebrations.

“Little plates of Jelly Bellies were on every table, throughout the White House,” McCoy said. “Every time I went by, I’d pick up five or six and put them in my suit pocket.”

Each day, he’d drive home 36 miles to Manassas, Va., where his three young daughters awaited treats. “As soon as I’d hit the door, they’d dive into my pockets for jelly beans,” he said.

With his 65th birthday coming in October, McCoy said, “I’m in my fourth career.”

His father spent 30 years in the Navy. Born at Tulalip, McCoy went to high school in San Diego, Calif., but the family came home each year. After graduation in 1961, he returned to Tulalip and tried commercial fishing for about six months. He worked for his wife’s uncle, Martin Williams.

“He’d wake me up at 3 a.m. and work me until 10 at night,” McCoy said. “I decided there had to be an easier way to make a living.”

Politics and lawmaking? Easy?

“It’s a love-hate,” McCoy quipped.

No doubt that’s true even at the White House.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or

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