AP Political Writer
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - For the families who live in Virginia's Executive Mansion, what makes the 200-year-old landmark feel like a home instead of a museum or office building?
For 29 years now, it's been Martin "Tutti" Townes, the official butler to every Virginia first family since Chuck Robb was governor.
Beginning in March 1813, the mansion has been home to 54 governors, the longest-serving gubernatorial residence in the nation. For the past eight governors, Townes became almost family, only to watch them exit after each governor's single four-year, nonrenewable term ends.
Those bonds are inevitable inside the federal-style villa a few steps from the state Capitol, all within the stone-and-iron fences and gates that encompass the seat of Virginia government. Even when the General Assembly isn't in session, the mansion is a swirl of celebrity excitement, Machiavellian political intrigue, and government crises in the same space where kids grow up and daily lives are lived.
Democrat or Republican, it matters not, said Townes, a tall, strapping 51-year-old who is at once gregarious and unflappably confident. They're all ordinary humans entrusted to his care under extraordinary circumstances for a fleeting 48 months.
"You don't really have time to grieve for the governor that's going out, but I still keep in contact," he said. He calls all the governors' children - even those now grown - on their birthdays. He still calls first ladies, current and past, by his own friendly moniker: the first letter of their last names prefaced by the courtesy title Mrs.
Thus, Roxane Gilmore is Mrs. G; Jeannie Baliles was Mrs. B.
The mansion and its governors run deep in Townes' own family. His mother, Doris Townes Fleming, was the mansion's cook when she met and married his stepfather, William Fleming.
Tutti Townes' wife, Stephanie, is the former mansion maid. His identical twin brother, Marvin "Billy" Townes, also worked at the mansion.
"He's the rock on which the private lives of the governor and first family are built," former Gov. Jim Gilmore said of Tutti Townes. Under Gilmore's watch, the mansion underwent a foundation-to-roof makeover and modernization that required the family to relocate for several months.
Not long after the Gilmores moved into the deteriorating mansion in 1998, Roxane Gilmore recalled entering the empty dwelling to the sound of running water. Thinking a shower she couldn't find had been left on, she sought Townes out.
"He said, 'Oh, don't worry Mrs. G, it's just raining outside.' I asked him what in the world that had to do with anything and he said to follow him. He took me into the basement and water that was leaking in through the ceiling was pouring down the elevator shaft," she said. "He smiled and said, 'Happens every time it rains. You'll get used to it.'"
What makes Townes priceless, former mansion residents say, is there's no task at the mansion that rattles him. Either he's done it before or he's smooth enough to make the daunting seem routine.
Anella Kaine, the youngest of three children Gov. Tim Kaine and first lady Anne Holton brought to the mansion in 2006, invited a friend for a sleepover as middle school-aged girls do. Her friend decided to try out a small freight elevator used for ferrying food, laundry and other items from floor to floor, Kaine recalled, and it got stuck between floors.
"The dumbwaiter is maybe 2 feet high, 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep," Kaine said. Trapped in that small, dark box, Kaine recalled, the child became hysterical. The Capitol Police were summoned and couldn't figure out what to do, he said. Capitol Square's physical plant supervisor wasn't sure what to do, either.
"So we called Tutti at home. And his line was - I'll never forget this, and I quote - 'Well, the last time this happened, ...'" Kaine, now a U.S. senator, said with a laugh. "He came downtown and got her out."
Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder recalled the night Townes saved the day for him. He had invited Richmond-born tennis legend Arthur Ashe to dinner at the mansion. Ashe agreed and asked if he could bring a relative or two, and Wilder said he welcomed it. He told Townes to prepare dinner for a handful of people.
"About 6:15 or so, the doorbell rang and there was Arthur with about 15-20 people, all relatives," Wilder said, cackling at the memory. "It was handled as if Tutti were expecting that number all along."
Among his brightest days in the mansion was Jan. 14, 1990, the bitterly cold day he welcomed Wilder, America's first elected black governor, to his new home.
"I never thought I'd see that anyway, not here in a southern state," said Townes, who is black.
His darkest day was Sept. 11, 2001, near the end of Gilmore's term. The governor had watched on live television as a second airliner packed with passengers slammed into the second World Trade Center tower in Manhattan. Fear gripped Richmond and Capitol Square itself as rumors blazed through that another terrorist attack there was imminent. Police swarmed the mansion as a precaution. Gilmore appeared focused and resolute as he began his short walk to his Capitol office, and their eyes met.
"We just looked at each other and we already knew," Townes said, his smile melting briefly. "I said, 'It's a tough day. Tough day.'"