If you spend just a few minutes with Michael Summerlin you will discern why Luverne, Alabama is known as the “Friendliest City in the South.” Open and honest, he credits his family and home town for his openness. But he points out that he was raised on his family farm. His grandparents had migrated to Alabama and bought a large piece of land on which they farmed cotton, peanuts, corn, and cattle. His grandparents died early and his dad inherited the homestead.
Michael’s dad farmed but he also “worked off” driving a truck. His mom worked for many years at the Welfare Department. Michael went into Luverne for school for all 12 grades. He admits to being a conscientious student who was in the marching band. The family spent each Sunday at the Southern Baptist Church. Michael recalls his hobby which started in kindergarten and continues today, drawing the interior and exterior of houses. Architecture chose Michael.
He chose Auburn University College of Architecture and discovered that his chosen field was a very rigorous path. Despite an emerging appetite for a social life, Michael found that a 10 hour school and study day was required. He discovered that he had a knack for focus which served him well. He elected to enter the co-op program which added a year to his university experience but allowed him to intern at a prestigious firm. He spent three months in school and three months in the firm drafting plans.
In 1972, Michael followed his partner to DC. Why? He wanted to see places other than Alabama. Because he could show two years of work experience, he found a job with the National Park Service in Philadelphia. After 18 months of commuting, a job opened as Assistant Architect at the White House. The National Park Service oversaw all design and construction except for the personal residence. Michael reports that Nancy Reagan had her own interior decorator. On Michael’s first day, President Reagan walked through the room with his Secret Service escorts and nodded at him. Unbelievable. A boy from Luverne.
Michael loved his work, surrounded by history. But on April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber in Beirut killed 63 people of whom 17 were Americans. The age of terrorism was upon us. Thomas Jefferson had built the first White House fence. Apparently, there had been a problem with wandering livestock. White House security grew in response to invasions for the next 175 years but terrorism and the growth of technology heralded a new era. Being in the right place at the right time got Michael involved with security. The Guard booth at the entrance needed a major architectural overhaul and Michael was elected to design it along with the technical engineers. Not only was extreme high tech required but the design had to meet the White House architectural standards. Michael was soon chosen as project manager for the guard houses. This required the coordination of all elements: design, technology, human safety, landscaping, aesthetics, engineering, and much more.
The function of the Guard House was the protection of the leader of the free world but it had to be an unobtrusive part of the landscape. Dozens of departments and commissions had a say in the design and construction. Michael coordinated their efforts. Mild mannered but direct, he soothed egos and repaired fissions. Shortly before 2 a.m. September 12, 1994, a small red-and-white plane flew low over 17th Street in the heart of the capital’s downtown, banked left in a U-turn near the Washington Monument, and headed straight toward the President’s bedroom. But fortunately the Clintons were at the Blair House. The emphasis on security was at an all-time high, but Michael was steadfast and the projects proceeded.
Who inspired you? No hesitation. “Hillary Clinton. She has absolute focus. She won’t quit. She validated what I always believed. If you focus and continue to do so, no job is too hard.”
Michael and his partner, Keith had become acquainted with Rehoboth Beach during the nineties. Michael’s retirement was on the horizon. They built their house in 2007. Keith commuted on weekends. It didn’t take long for Michael to get bored, so back he went part-time at his old job overseeing Guard Booth updating. Nonetheless, they both moved full time to the beach in 2012 but Michael returns to the White House in the summer to, you guessed it, oversee the updating of Guard Booths.
Asked what he hopes will be his legacy, he hopes that he has shown that accomplishment will occur with the application of focus. He hopes that the thousands of participants in his projects came away with an appreciation for the efficacy of laser focus. When I think of all the committee meetings I’ve been in, laser focus would have been a great asset.