He served 10 presidents, but died alone in squalor: What happened to Theodoric C. James?

White House Photo – Theodoric James Jr. worked in the White House for almost 50 years. His Northwest Washington neighbors never knew he catalogued important, sometimes sensitive, documents.

By , Published: August 13

Theodoric C. James Jr. was clearly in trouble. He wasn’t showering anymore. He wore the same ragged clothing day after day. Rats rummaged through the weeds and mounds of trash in his yard. He started going to the bathroom in buckets on his front porch.

His neighbor Alex Dobbins was afraid that something terrible was going to happen. They had been friends since their days at Howard University and had lived in adjoining rowhouses in the 16th Street Heights section of Northwest Washington for 37 years.


(Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST) – In the months after Theodoric James’s retirement, he had let his home and health deteriorate. Windows were cracked, wood was rotting and James might have been living without electricity and water, a neighbor thinks.

(Carol Guzy/THE WASHINGTON POST) – The District now holds a lien on his house after cleaning up the grounds.

But this was not the man he had known. The man who had served in the White House for almost 50 years, under every president from Kennedy to Obama. The man who read and catalogued many of the documents that flow through the Oval Office: memos to the president, letters, pieces of legislation, nomination packets, even classified material that required him to have a security clearance.

This man was inexplicably living in squalor, seemingly without electricity or running water, and hiding under a hooded overcoat and multiple layers of clothing no matter how hot it got. He wasn’t just a public nuisance but, Dobbins feared, a danger to himself. For more than two years, Dobbins and James’s family members in Mississippi repeatedly called every city office they could think of, the Department of Mental Health, Adult Protective Services, his council member, the mayor, hoping to get James help and prevent the worst.

Then, on Aug. 1, after the punishing heat wave that pushed the heat index to 112, Dobbins woke up worried because he hadn’t seen his friend in two days. He knocked on the door loudly with a baseball bat. There was no answer. He checked the Rite Aid where James bought his breakfast, which was often green tea and Doritos, but no one had seen him.

So once again, he picked up the phone and called 911. The firefighters who responded had a hard time getting the door open. Something was blocking it. Something heavy, like a body.

The medical examiner would later determine that James, 71, died of heat exposure.

At least that much is known, but there is no simple answer for how a once-fastidious, much-praised civil servant came to this end. Social services officials won’t comment on his case specifically but say they are often constrained when adults refuse help, even when it is evident that they need it.

Now family, friends, former colleagues at the White House and D.C. officials are left to wonder: Could James’s death have been prevented?

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Education was always important to the James family. Theo James’s grandfather is thought to have been the first African American doctor in Columbus, Miss., and his home is featured as an attraction on the city’s conventions and visitors Web site. James’s father, a brick mason, attended boarding school and Tuskegee University, according to Avee James, his sister-in-law.

When Theo James was a senior in high school, his family sent him to live with his aunt in the District, where they thought he could get a better education at Western High School, now the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. After graduation, he attended Howard University, and in the early 1960s he started working part-time for the White House, filing documents. In 1970, he gained admission to Howard’s medical school but attended for one year, deciding that his grandfather’s profession was not for him. Instead, he took a full-time job with the White House in the Office of Records Management.