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Danny Villanueva, chef to 5 presidents, dies

Danny Villanueva, 87, a retired Navy senior chief petty officer who served five presidents at the White House and aboard the presidential yacht during his career as a military chef, died April 25 at Georgetown University Hospital.

His death, from a stroke, was confirmed by his daughter Beverly Villanueva Lee. Villanueva was a longtime resident of Oxon Hill, Md.

He was born Donato Castillo Villanueva to a farming family in Alaminos, in the Philippines. With the goal of gaining U.S. citizenship, he joined the Navy shortly after World War II and was assigned to be a cook.

According to his daughter, he was serving in the Mediterranean when his ship received a visit from President Dwight Eisenhower. Villanueva so impressed him with his cooking that he was invited to work in the White House, and he readily agreed.

He served in the White House staff mess at the end of Eisenhower's presidency and during the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. During the Nixon and Ford administrations, he was a chef aboard the Sequoia, the presidential yacht, and served as its leading steward.

Andrew Combe, a retired Navy captain and former commanding officer of the Sequoia, described Villanueva as "one of the finest and most dedicated sailors I knew in my 30-year Navy career."

"He always did work to perfection," Combe said, and "was only satisfied with the very best."

On the yacht, Villanueva served what Combe described as "the equivalent of state dinners" to the president, cabinet members and dignitaries, including Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev during his historic 1973 visit to the United States.

"We didn't panic. We worked hard. We found a way to accommodate [them] the way dignitaries are supposed to be entertained," said Rogelio Guillermo, a Navy veteran who worked with Villanueva during Brezhnev's visit. "That was one of the best shows we had."

Richard Nixon was reported to have used the Sequoia more than any other president in the boat's history. In the final days of his presidency, amid the emotional turmoil of his impending resignation, Nixon seemed to find in the boat a sort of refuge. At times, Combe said, Nixon would ask on short notice to go for a cruise.

"Getting the food together was quite a challenge," Combe said, and Villanueva was "the one who made that happen."

Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Aurelia Ochave Catbay Villanueva of Oxon Hill; seven children; a brother; two sisters; 22 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

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