By Kathy Day
Melissa Winter came home to La Jolla over the weekend. And then she turned around and went back to work on Monday, heading for a three-day swing along the West Coast with her boss, Michelle Obama.
Winter, who received The Bishop’s School’s Ellen Browning Scripps Distinguished Alumni Award at the school’s sixth annual EBS Celebration on Saturday night, serves as deputy chief of staff for the First Lady. She began working for her during the campaign when a friend suggested she apply for the job.
A veteran of the political world, who first worked in Washington while in college and knew then she wanted to work in the White House, Winter talked with the Light before the ceremony.
“My appreciation of the opportunity I’ve been given to work in the White House has not worn off,” she said. “I’m still in awe.”
An art history major with a minor in French from Skidmore College, Winter said she thought she had no real hope she’d get a job in politics. “The fact that I’ve succeeded in achieving this is amazing.”
She was also a little in awe, she noted, that she was selected to receive the Bishop’s honor.
“It feels like it should be for someone else,” she said. “There’s no question it’s a huge honor. It’s just a little ironic, (considering) I spent time struggling academically.”
It’s also a bit amazing to her mother, Patricia, who sat nearby quietly listening to the interview. When asked how she felt about her daughter’s success, Patricia teared up a bit and said, “I’m moved listening to her.”
It’s not often she gets to hear her daughter discuss her work, because when they talk the last thing the younger Winter wants to do “is rehash her day.”
Despite her self-described academic weaknesses, she said she knows from looking back what is important for anyone interested in a career in public policy.
“Learn about the country and the world. Read the newspaper at an early age,” she said.
Coincidentally, the importance of reading and watching the news was instilled in Winter by another person honored Saturday at Bishop’s: Melinda Hennessey, who was her history teacher. Hennessey received the Michael W. Teitelman Leadership Award.
(Also honored posthumously was Christiane Covington, a screenwriter and filmmaker who died in 2009 during a snorkeling accident. Family members accepted her Alumni Achievement Award.)
Winter, when asked to explain her typical day, said there’s no such thing.
Her job in the East Wing focuses on the operations side as opposed to the policy side, which she leaves to Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff and those in the West Wing.
When she’s not on the road with Mrs. Obama — which is frequently — her days generally last from about 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 or 8 at night. Mostly she gets weekends off to read and relax or go out with friends. But that laptop is always around — just in case she needs to check on details or get answers from staffers who might still be working.
“We spend blocks of time in preparation for the next event on the horizon.”
In September, she said, they were focusing on the election; now it’s a post-election trip to Indonesia and India. Then it’s Thanksgiving and then the holiday season — when there are 21 events scheduled at the White House.
“There’s no time to sit and reflect on what you’ve accomplished,” Winter said.
There was a steep learning curve, she noted, which was aided by a “wonderful manual” prepared by Laura Bush’s staff and advice from Hilary Clinton.
“There’s no blueprint for how to be a First Lady or part of her staff,” she added.
And on Inauguration Day, it all hit home how much there is to learn. On that single day, she noted, the Obamas woke up in Blair House, went to church and then the swearing in. Then it was off to the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and back to their new home where they got ready for the string of celebratory parties.
“There was an enormous amount of logistics — how do you get in, where do you park — literally all on Inauguration Day.”
Now that she knows where to park and where her office is, each morning when she gets to work and sees Bo, the First Dog, roaming around the halls, she said, “It’s surreal.”