Meet the Man Who Will Take Care of 'Cheese,' the Turkey Obama Pardoned Today

Keith McMillan comes from a family of farmers, but his responsibility for the president's flock is very new.
Photograph by the Getty Images

Keith McMillan is a plainspoken, scruffy-faced, 56-year-old horticulturalist who wears a “Tippy's Taco House” T-shirt to work, prefers the great outdoors to marble hallways and by his own estimation follows politics “less and less every year.” He wasn't looking for a job with ties to the White House, but he seems well suited for the one that found him: chief caretaker for Thanksgiving turkeys pardoned by President Barack Obama, including the lucky ones pardoned today named "Mac" and "Cheese."

I met him this week on a visit to Morven Park in Leesburg, Va., where the pardoned turkeys, who used to be retired to Mount Vernon, now stay and receive care from McMillan, other staff and their families. The grounds, with a mansion, museums and equestrian events open to the public, was the home of Westmoreland Davis, an early 20th century Virginia governor who, among other pursuits, bred turkeys there. The turkey rest home is not a taxpayer-funded venture; a fenced enclosure that includes a coop with heat lamps and fans was paid for by a gift from a local broker and turkey enthusiast, Janeen Marconi. Marconi, on a side note, says she wishes the presidents would pardon a heritage turkey, which are leaner and hardier, rather than the Broad-Breasted whites that are bred to grow big and die young. The park's foundation covers groundskeeping, staff time, feed and and the services of an on-call veterinarian.

Keith McMillan with turkeys Caramel (left) and Franklin at Morven Park.
Keith McMillan with turkeys Caramel (left) and Franklin at Morven Park.

Caramel, one of two White House turkeys who moved there in January, was strutting around during my visit. On a diet since his arrival, he's exceeding his life expectancy. He has a companion, Franklin, a dark-feathered turkey with no White House connections who already was living on the grounds. Popcorn, who was pardoned by Obama last Thanksgiving, died earlier this year.

Here's an edited version of my conversation with McMillan:

Did you ever imagine you'd be taking care of turkeys pardoned by the president?

No. But I like it. They're living things. They're neat to be around. They're not a whole lot of trouble.“Who rules the roost?” There's a lot of poultry clichés out there. “Pecking order.” There's another poultry cliché. Caramel rules the roost. Wherever Caramel goes, Franklin goes. In the mornings, Caramel always comes out first. Popcorn was docile. He was sweet. But Caramel's sweet, too. But when he's ready to eat, he'll let you know!

Caramel weighed about 40 pounds when he arrived. How much does he weigh now and what does he eat?

About 30 pounds, 30 to 35 pounds. That was intentional. He couldn't hardly go up this ramp when he got here. It's local flock feed from Purina for ducks, chickens and turkeys. They have a good life.

Do you follow politics?

Less and less every year. I'm a good citizen. I vote. I do have a concern about the soil and agriculture, people doing the right things. I'm concerned about agricultural practices.

 I feel awkward asking this in front of these guys so I'm going to lower my voice. Do you still eat turkey for Thanksgiving?

Every chance I get. My grandparents were farmers. I'm all for farming. I might have a problem eating one of these guys—that might be tough—but when I sit down Thursday I won't have any trouble.

What do you think of the pardoning tradition?

I think it's fun. It's silly, but it's fun. I'm like everyone else. If it's on the TV, I'm watching it.

Do you have kids? What do they think about your job?

[My 23-year-old daughter] loves it. She was all over it on social media. She's also a fourth grade teacher so I imagine she'll be sharing it with her class.

Is there anything politicians can learn from turkeys?

You're not going to get me to go down this road. I'm not going to say anything like, “Politicians are turkeys.” Another cliché. I don't know why being called a turkey is such a bad thing.

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