Nancy Mayer Whittington First Interview: June 24, 2009Catherine Nugent2022-05-17T12:07:07-04:00
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Nancy Mayer-Whittington Oral History
Interview Session I
June 24, 2009
Ms. Woodbury: This interview with Nancy Mayer-Whittington, the Clerk of the Court for
both the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and the United
States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Columbia, is being taken as part of the
Oral History Project for the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit.
This interview is being conducted in Nancy’s office in the E. Barrett Prettyman
U.S. Courthouse on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. My name is Ellen
Woodbury. I am a lawyer with the law firm of Chadbourne & Parke. Nancy,
thank you for agreeing to participate in the Historical Society’s oral history
program. I would like to start today with your family background and your
childhood growing up here in Washington. First, would you just state your full
name and tell us when and where you were born?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I am Nancy Mayer-Whittington. I was born in Washington, D.C. on
February 2, 1953.
Ms. Woodbury: Would you tell us a little bit about your parents and their families?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: My father, Francis C. Mayer was born in Wichita, Kansas on February 18,
1919. His mother was Mae Spellman Mayer and his father was Hans Englebert
Mayer. His mother, whose parents were both born in Ireland, was born in the
United States and his father was born in Hamburg, Germany. Hans was sent to
the United States when he was 15 or so to avoid having to join the German army.
He went to live with his uncle, Leo Mayer, who lived in St. Louis. My father had
an older brother, Russell and an older sister, Celeste.
My mother’s parents were Anna McHugh Herron and Patrick Francis
Herron. My mother, Mary Rose Herron, was born in Hazelton, Pennsylvania on
April 29, 1920. Her mother Anna, whose parents were both born in Ireland, was
born in the United States and her father Patrick was the sixth of 13 children and
the first one born in the United States. His older siblings were born in Ireland. My
mother was one of ten children. She was second oldest and the oldest daughter.
Ms. Woodbury: Do you know how your father’s family came to settle in Kansas?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: My father’s mother was born in Kansas and my father’s father was a
traveling insurance salesman. His territory included parts of Kansas and that is
how he met my grandmother.
Ms. Woodbury: Did you know your paternal grandparents?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No. My grandfather died before I was born. My grandmother was not in
good health in her later years and did not travel. She died in 1960 when I was 7
years old. My dad told us that although his father, Hans, had come to this
country when he was in his teens, and later became a citizen, he never quite got
rid of his German accent. He learned the English language and spoke it
flawlessly. But, he also retained his fluency in his native German language. When
Hans and Mae married, she forbid him to speak any German in the house.
Tensions against Germany and the German people were still running high in the
United States after the end of World War I. My dad remembered that when he
was about seven years old, their next door neighbor ran up to my Dad’s front door
and told their family to stay inside and turn off the lights. A mob of people were
coming to the house because they thought they had heard Hans speaking in his
native German language and they didn’t believe he was an American citizen. A
few minutes later, a big group of men arrived yelling and carrying torches. My
dad said he had never been so scared in his whole life. Fortunately, the neighbor
confronted the group and told them that Hans was an American citizen and that
he was loyal to this country and the neighbor reminded them that most of them
knew Hans and that he was a good neighbor and friend. Finally, the crowd left
and my dad and his family could turn the lights back on. My dad said he never
forgot that night or the bravery of the neighbor who came to their aid.
Ms. Woodbury: Did your father or your aunt Celeste on your father’s side talk about how
the family was impacted by the Great Depression?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: My aunt Celeste talked about all the changes that happened to their family
as a result of the Depression. The insurance business was very slow so the family
had to cut back on their living expenses because of the lost income. My aunt
Celeste told us that they used to have a cook, and a housekeeper before the
Depression. They had to let them go and do the chores themselves because they
could no longer afford to live that way. My aunt Celeste was 12 years older than
my dad and his brother Russ was 14 years older. Since my dad was so much
younger, he did not recall a time when they had a lot of money. He remembers
living in a very modest home and doing a lot of part time jobs in order to have
any spending money. In fact, he told of the time when he was at his high school
graduation and when he got his diploma and opened up the outer casing,
instead of finding his diploma there was a note that said he owed the school $5
and he would not receive his actual diploma until he paid the outstanding
debt! Five dollars was a lot of money back then but his sister, Celeste, who
had a steady income from her job, paid the fee and they never told my
grandmotheranything about it. My dad after high school went away to
Ms. Woodbury: Did your aunt Celeste also attend college?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. She was quite a character! She had a part-time job when she was
16 and in high school. With her very first paycheck, she took the money and
went out to the regional airport. She paid for a 30 minute ride in an open
cockpit two-seater plane laughing as they circled Wichita and enjoying every
minute. She never told her parents what she did, but she enjoyed telling her
nieces and nephews all about her first trip in an airplane.
Ms. Woodbury: Do you remember or do you know which college she attended?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: She attended Marymount College then transferred to Wichita State
University. Her first husband, Buck Weaver, whom she married in 1948 died in
1958. She then married James C. Dolan in 1961 and he died in 1991. Aunt
Celeste died in 2002.
Ms. Woodbury: Where did your father go to college?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: My father attended Regis College in Denver.
Ms. Woodbury: Do you know how he selected that college?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I think he got a scholarship. He was an outstanding student who excelled
in a lot of subjects but he was especially good in public speaking, debating and
engaging anyone in conversation.
Ms. Woodbury: What year was your father born?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: 1919.
Ms. Woodbury: On your mother’s side, did you know either of your grandparents?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. I knew my grandfather, Patrick Francis Herron. We called him
Pat. He was a wonderful first generation Irish American. In Hazelton, he
owned and operated a general store. The store was on the first floor and the
family lived in the two stories above it. When the Depression came, they lost
the store primarily because they had extended so much credit to their
customers — and his customers couldn’t pay my grandfather what they owed
him. He in turn couldn’t pay for more merchandise without cash because they
were not extending him any credit either. At this time, the two oldest sons,
John and Joe, had finished high school and went to Washington, D.C. to look
for work. Both of them found jobs and the family decided to relocate to D.C.
and start fresh. Things were changing but the family wanted to stay together.
Ms. Woodbury: Were there job opportunities available in Washington at that time?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, my uncle Joe found a job working as a car mechanic and my
uncle John found a job working in a grocery store. My uncle Terry enlisted in
the Navy when he finished high school in 1942. The family moved to D.C. in
1941. My grandfather was 64 years old and he found a job working the
produce department in a Safeway store. But he was allergic to the pesticides
they used on the produce and developed a rash on his hands that made it
difficult for him and very uncomfortable. He didn’t want to lose the job
because at his age it was hard to find work. Shortly after his son Terry
enlisted in the Navy, his plane was shot down in the Pacific. Everyone got out
but Terry. He was the belly gunner and wasn’t able to get out. They never
found his body and his death was a huge blow to the family. A few months
after this, a stranger came up to my grandfather while he was working at
Safeway and told him about a job that was opening for a night watchman at the
public water plant. My grandfather applied and was hired. He always told us that
he thought the stranger was an angel sent by his son Terry to ease his sorrow and
get him out of the produce business.
Ms. Woodbury: This would be your uncle?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: My one uncle was a mechanic.
Ms. Woodbury: You said your father after he graduated from college applied to Catholic
University? Did he tell you why he decided to go to law school or how he chose
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I think he chose Catholic, again, because he got a scholarship. He didn’t
have a lot of money so getting a lot of financial help was what he needed, But he
also choose Catholic because of his and his family’s interest in having a Catholic
education. To this point, my father had gone to Catholic schools all his life, so
Catholic University for law school was a natural choice. He also loved their
theater program with their connection to Arena Stage. My dad loved appearing
in theatrical productions.
Ms. Woodbury: All of your siblings are girls right?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes.
Ms. Woodbury: Did you ever wish you had a brother?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No, not really. But I don’t know whether it was because not ever having
had a brother I didn’t really know what, if anything, I was missing.
Ms. Woodbury: I was going to ask how you and your sisters got along and were you
close while you were growing up?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes and we had our normal ups and downs…
Ms. Woodbury: Sibling’s rivalries?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Somewhat but we were all so close in age to one another — my parents
had 10 daughters in 12 years – that being a part of a big family was normal for us.
We were and still are very close to one another. Our parents did a wonderful job
of raising us and letting us know that getting along, helping each other and taking
care of each other was the most important thing we could do for the family. I was
the second oldest of the family and at an early age I learned that I should be a role
model for my younger sisters. My parents gave me an opportunity at a young age
to develop some leadership skills. They had expectations for all of us depending
on our age and skill sets and I think that prevented the sibling rivalries and
developed in all of us a strong sense of family love and pride.
Ms. Woodbury: When you were born your parents would have been in their thirties right?
And they lived in Washington?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes.
Ms. Woodbury: And at some point they moved to Kensington?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, when my sister Kathleen was born we were living in a two bedroom
apartment in the Brookland section of D.C.. So, we moved to a three bedroom
home in Kensington. They didn’t want to go too far out because our dad was
commuting downtown to the Federal Trade Commission every day for work.
Ms. Woodbury: You would have been still very young at that point?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. I was 2 at the time.
Ms. Woodbury: Do you remember anything about Washington at all from that time?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No, I don’t. I have seen pictures of the Brookland area but I don’t have
any real memories of living there. When my parents got married, my mom
moved from the family home on Quincy Street in NE to the apartment. When
we moved to Kensington, the only family members still living in the family
home were my grandfather, and one aunt and uncle who had not married. So,
they moved to a house across the street from us in Kensington. That was great
because we got to see them every day.
Ms. Woodbury: What did you and your sisters do for fun?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: We were a typical family. We played outdoors a lot riding our bikes,
roller skating, playing kickball and baseball and hopscotch and four square. We
had dolls and doll carriages and lots of doll clothes. One time when we cleaned
up our basement and put all of our dolls on the wooden shelves my grandfather
had made for us, we had 72 dolls all in a row and all in their Sunday best. I still
remember how they looked all cleaned up and sitting side by side. I had a
wonderful childhood. It was great growing up in a family with ten daughters.
Ms. Woodbury: What was that neighborhood like?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Our Kensington neighborhood was wonderful.
There were kids in most of the houses around us. We lived on a court for
much of the time before they cut down the trees and added more houses to our
street. Living on the court was great for kickball games, bike riding and hide
and seek. We didn’t have to worry about watching out for cars since we knew
everyone on the street and they would watch out for all the children. We
really hated having to move but as our family size increased and the three
bedroom house did not increase, well we had to find a bigger place. When we
moved into our house in Rockville, our cousins bought a house across the
street so we were happy to be able to see them all the time. This new
neighborhood was a lot bigger and there were even more kids than in our old
neighborhood. The new neighborhood was a fairly Catholic neighborhood
with St. Jude’s Church and school right down the street from us. With a
Catholic neighborhood, you usually — at least back then — had families with
lots of children. Our next door neighbors had 6 boys and one girl, our cousins
had 8 children and another family two doors down had 7 kids. The smallest
family on the block had three children and with 10 we were the largest family.
It was great fun! We could field several teams for any sport and at the end of the
street was the best hill ever for sledding. Since we were right down the street
from St. Jude’s we were able to walk to school which was huge because in our old
neighborhood we had to take a school bus.
Ms. Woodbury: When you were in Kensington, what school did you and your sisters go
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Holy Redeemer.
Ms. Woodbury: And were the classes all girls or boys and girls?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Boys and girls
Ms. Woodbury: And where was that located?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Holy Redeemer is located at the corner of Saul and Summit Avenue a
couple of blocks off Connecticut Avenue in Kensington. It is not too far from the
beltway and Rock Creek Park.
Ms. Woodbury: Were you there through age 10 when you moved to
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes.
Ms. Woodbury: Were you sorry to leave the old school, you had been there for five years?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, it was hard because I had a lot of friends there and I was very happy
there. When we moved to Rockville, St. Jude’s school had a waiting list for some
grades so that my sister Kathleen, who is one year younger than me, and I had to
go to the local public school.
Ms. Woodbury: Were all of your sisters in that same situation that they had gone to the
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No, just Kathleen and I. We both went to Aspen Hill Elementary School.
Kathleen went there for fourth grade and I went there for fifth and sixth grades.
Ms. Woodbury: When you went to high school where did you go?
Academy of the Holy Cross in Garrett Park?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. That was a great experience for me. I was rather shy in grade
school but I started to come out of my shell at Holy Cross. I loved the fact that
it was an all girl’s high school so I didn’t have to worry about impressing or
making mistakes and getting teased by boys. I learned how to write at Holy
Cross, how to take responsibility for myself and how to manage people and
Ms. Woodbury: Were there classes or teachers that you particularly liked?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: There was Sister Thomas Aquinas who gave me my love of creative
non-fiction and poetry, Ms. Homorsky who taught world religions and opened
my eyes to all the other faiths that exist all around us and Sister Rose Michael
who encouraged me to run for president of the drama club — not because I
wanted to be on the stage — because I had a knack for managing things.
Ms. Woodbury: Were there particular teachers that influenced you?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Absolutely, there was Sister Margaret Ann who taught me that I always
have a choice in any situation. There may not always be a lot of good choices,
but there are always choices. She would say, “If you give up your right to make
a choice, you become a victim. God gave you free will. Use it.”
Sister Grace who epitomized her name but always impressed on us the
need to be an advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. But, she
would say, “Do it with dignity and grace.”
Ms. Woodbury: What kind of literature class did Sister Thomas Aquinas teach?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: She taught English Lit and the Classics. But she encouraged all of us to
find our voice through writing. I won a poetry contest once because she inspired
me to try my hand at writing poems?
Ms. Woodbury: You mentioned the drama club.
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. I was the stage manager for all the plays and I found that I had a
knack for telling people what to do. Not really telling them what to do but
helping them stay on track and get to the right locations on stage in the right
costumes at the right time. Those early beginnings have helped me develop
management skills that I use today. But, as I said earlier, at Holy Cross I
developed a real love of the written word. I love to write and at one time I had
hoped to be a sportswriter.
Ms. Woodbury: Why didn’t you pursue that?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: There were very few women sports writers at that time and I guess I
lacked the confidence to give it a try.
Ms. Woodbury: Did your family travel?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Not really but we always made a point of taking a family vacation. Our
dad loved going to the bay or the ocean, so each year we would rent a cottage on
Broomes Island, Maryland or Fenwick Island, Delaware and then eventually
Ocean City, Maryland.
Ms. Woodbury: In your family, were there any female role models for you to emulate?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: My aunt Anne was because she got up every morning and put on high
heels and pearls and went to work for the Department of the Navy.
Ms. Woodbury: Did your aunt give you any advice?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Her favorite expression was “It’s a man’s world!” But then she would tell
us that we were going to be better off because of our education. My aunt Anne
never went to college.
Ms. Woodbury: Did your mother talk to you about the problems of having a career and
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Not directly. My mother was more subtle. She would grab little
opportunities – like when she was helping us out by babysitting one of our
children — to remind us to keep things in perspective. Nothing was so bad that it
wouldn’t look better in the morning. And, she was right. But she was clearly my
role model for what a mother should be.
Ms. Woodbury: Were either you or any of your sisters interested in politics or public
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. I was a little bit interested in politics because of the Watergate
trials and all the intrigue surrounding the supposed burglary of the Democratic
National Committee. I knew something about the Executive Branch of
government because of My dad’s position as head of Discriminatory Practices
for the FTC. But I had no idea about the investigative side of the Legislative
Ms. Woodbury: You were aware that the nation’s capital was right next door?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. In the sense that I knew that my dad worked downtown and
commuted there every day when we were growing up and that the FTC was on
Pennsylvania Avenue with the Capitol at one end and the White House at the
Ms. Woodbury: How old were you when President Kennedy was assassinated?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I was ten years old and we had just moved to our new house in Rockville
a few months earlier in August of 1963. Like everyone else, we watched the TV
non-stop and it was interesting to me that all my mom’s living brothers and sisters
came to our house. They were so upset and so sad that the first Irish Catholic
President was assassinated. They loved President Kennedy and were in a state of
shock. Our aunt Anne took some of my sisters and I down to D.C. to watch the
funeral procession and I clearly remember how quiet it was and the only sounds
you could hear were the clacking of the hooves on the horse drawn caisson, the
riderless horse that trailed behind the coffin and the sound of people crying.
Ms. Woodbury: What do you remember about the anti-war movement and the Viet Nam
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I remember that in high school everyone was divided into two sections.
You were either a hawk that supported the war or a dove that did not support the
war. Before high school these types of issues were very black and white for me.
I saw the lack of support for the war as a sign that you didn’t support our
troops. To me that was unpatriotic. There were vigorous debates in our
classes and through those debates — both formal and spur of the moment —
I learned so much more about the war. I left high school knowing that the
issue of being pro-war or anti-war was much more complicated than I had
ever thought. I realized you could love America and hate the war. The Viet
Nam war ended just as I graduated from college.
Ms. Woodbury: Right at the end of your college?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, in 1975.
Ms. Woodbury: What were there discussions around the family dinner about the Viet
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: My father was fairly vocal about the notion that you had to support our
country, right or wrong and that you couldn’t end the war until Communism was
stopped. But as I mentioned earlier, I was learning there were so many facets to
the war and I thought there were some reasonable arguments that my father
should at least be willing to hear. I was disappointed that my dad did not embrace
my new found perspective but I appreciated that he listened to what I had to say.