Waukesha, Wis., chimney sweep serves the White House
When Jeff Schmittinger heard President Bill Clinton's first address to Congress in 1993, he decided he wanted to do his part to help battle the federal deficit. So the owner of highly rated Wisconsin Chimney Technicians resolved to offer his professional services to the White House for free.
"I felt like the little drummer boy in the Christmas carol — I know it's not much, but I can't offer anything else," says Schmittinger, who got his start in the chimney business in 1982. "I honestly didn't think they were going to take me up on it."
But after a couple of phone calls, a formal letter and several months of security checks, Schmittinger was cleared to start cleaning the 35 chimneys at the most famous house in America. Nearly every other year since, Schmittinger has led a team of sweeps to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where they clean the chimneys and inspect them for damage with video cameras.
Schmittinger says a few of the White House chimneys aren't used at all, but about 25 of them get moderate to heavy use.
"In the Oval Office, we run a vacuum at the bottom and a fan at the top," he says. "We get so much soot coming out of the top, it's like they're naming a new Pope."
The White House team includes about eight sweeps, including four rotating slots Schmittinger offers to members of the Plainfield, Ind.-based National Chimney Sweep Guild who have given back to their communities or made significant contributions to the industry.
Jack Pixley of the highly rated Jack Pixley Sweeps in Andover, Minn., cleaned the chimney in Dick Cheney's office during the group's 2008 trip to Washington.
"Of all the fireplaces, his was the dirtiest," says Pixley, who's been sweeping chimneys since 1977. "I noticed in his office he had a lot of stuff with a Western motif, so I'm guessing he's a person who likes fires."
Pixley was also tasked with sweeping the fireplace in Lincoln's bedroom, where a White House escort showed him a written copy of one of the 16th president's most famous speeches.
"It was really neat to be able to read the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln's own hand," Pixley says.
Joe Sauter of the highly rated Your Chimney Sweep in Indianapolis is a member of the National Chimney Sweep Guild and scored one of this year's slots after his 7-year-old son demonstrated his prowess with presidential trivia. "It's a coveted thing to be able to do," Sauter says. "I think it will definitely be an experience."
The biennial sweep takes place in August, when Congress is not in session and the president is usually on vacation, so the team rarely meets any high-level government officials. However, Schmittinger's sweeps did get the opportunity to meet President George W. Bush on one trip.
"He's got a good sense of humor," he says. "When he came in, he put his hand out and said, 'Hi, I'm George Bush.'"
The sweeps who clean the White House chimneys aren't allowed to advertise their exploits in any promotional materials, though they can talk about them with customers and the media. Schmittinger admits he brags a bit back home about his position as the First Chimney Sweep, but that's not what gets him rave reviews with Angie's List members.
Mindy Heimsch of Pewaukee, Wis., remembers his thorough and tidy work and the unexpected gift he presented to her son, P.J., who was about 4 years old at the time. When Schmittinger pulled a square of red felt from the chimney, Heimsch says P.J.'s "eyes got real big and he said, 'I think that's from Santa's coat.'" The family kept the felt tacked to their fridge for a year afterward.
"It was unexpected that someone you hire to do a simple job like clean your chimney would go out of their way to make a little boy's day like that," Heimsch says.
Schmittinger began his career of delighting children and cleaning chimneys when he spotted a magazine ad for starting a sweeping business while working as a volunteer firefighter. After finding only one part-time sweep listed in the local phone book, he ordered his equipment and never looked back.
Schmittinger says cleaning the White House chimneys is a crowning achievement in a prosperous career — the industry equivalent of performing at Carnegie Hall.
"Even though I don't get cash for what I do, not all of your rewards come in the form of something you take to the bank," Schmittinger says. "You stand on the roof of the White House and you look around and think, 'How could this happen to a guy who cleans chimneys in Waukesha?'"