SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Karine Jean-Pierre (left), Jen Psaki
Ahead of her final briefing on Friday, White House staffers spoke to PEOPLE to share their warm memories of Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who they described as a "thoughtful and kind" leader, a dear friend — and a snazzy dresser.
Psaki — who announced she would be leaving her post earlier this month — was sent off in style, with a celebration hosted by President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden Tuesday evening on the Blue Room balcony, overlooking the South Lawn.
The president gave remarks to the gathering, which included the press office and communications teams, senior staff, and Psaki's mom. Ice cream sandwiches, cheesecake and champagne were served — and memories of Psaki's time in the White House, and the camaraderie she had with her colleagues, were shared.
Courtesy of White House and White House Press Office The White House Press team before Christmas
On Friday, Psaki spoke for one last time behind the White House podium — which will soon be handed over to Karine Jean-Pierre, who will make history as the first Black press secretary.
"Jen is an inspiration," Jean-Pierre, 44, told PEOPLE of Psaki. "She has been an amazing mentor, colleague and friend. Always supportive. Always there to help. And always there to encourage and push us. She is also incredibly kind and caring. Always asking about our family and our lives. She will be greatly missed."
Just ahead of her final briefing, other staffers shared their favorite memories of the "incredibly thoughtful and fiercely loyal" press secretary with PEOPLE.
Courtesy of White House and White House Press Office Psaki’s office during the State of the Union
Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates told PEOPLE Psaki "goes an extra 100 miles for her people" and recounted how, when he started out as a 19-year-old intern for the Obama campaign and was living in Chicago with no furniture, she gave him her own air mattress to sleep on.
This past year, after Psaki delegated Bates to take the lead on press for the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, he had to miss the White House event celebrating her confirmation to the Supreme Court because he was home isolating with COVID.
"Unexpectedly, there was a knock at our door," he said. "Jen remembered that my fiancé's and my favorite kind of food is Italian, and she'd sent a delivery person with pasta and meat sauce."
Other colleagues also remembered Psaki's thoughtful gestures — such as when she indulged Assistant Press Secretary Kevin Munoz's Olivia Rodrigo fandom by introducing him to the superstar when she visited the White House last July.
"It's not every day your boss introduces you to a superstar," he told PEOPLE.
Director of Rapid Response Mike Gwin offered a similar story of Psaki's willingness to go the extra mile for a colleague.
On his own first day in the office — in January 2021 — Gwin said he was struck by Psaki's level-headedness during "wall-to-wall press coverage ... in the middle of a pandemic."
"But even given all of that, Jen took the time to come to the office early that morning before we arrived and leave a gift bag with a handwritten note and some essential supplies for me and all my colleagues as we were getting settled in," he said.
He continued: "That small act speaks volumes to what a thoughtful and kind boss and leader she is, and the fact that she (rightly) considered a can of wine as one of the essential supplies was an early preview of how much fun it would be to work for her."
Courtesy of White House and White House Press Office Jen Psaki and Karine Jean-Pierre in Karine’s office
Assistant Press Secretary Vedant Patel described Psaki as "the walking embodiment of a great boss" — and them some, saying, "she was also a stellar human being that took time to connect with the team on things outside of the work place too — like comparing notes about the best ice cream place in town, and where the best ethnic food in Arlington was, what to watch on TV."
Press Wrangler Angela Perez added: "On hard days, she'd buy heaping orders of sweet potato fries from the Navy Mess for her and the team (her favorite)."
But Psaki was also adamant that her team wasn't "sacrificing on the serious parts of our personal lives," as Patel told PEOPLE.
"I can remember a couple of times where I was 'scolded' for being on team calls and e-mails when I was supposed to be on vacation with my wife," he said. "She pushed us to be the best versions of ourselves – the best spokespersons on behalf of The White House, but also the best people we could be too."
Chief of Staff to the Press Office Amanda Finney said that Psaki would even send her "lat night texts after very tough days," saying the gesture was one of many "little reminders that mean so much."
"When she didn't have to do that, after an exhausted day after putting the kids to bed, she still had the chance to think of me which meant all the world to me — the words of affirmation that we were a team, a partnership and together we could fight again together to get it done," Finney said.
Courtesy of White House and White House Press Office The wall next to Emilie Simons’ desk
Amid the stress of the job, Psaki tried to keep things light — and those on her team followed suit.
Assistant Press Secretary Emilie Simons fondly spoke of the "funny little sayings" for which Psaki has become known — and which have been immortalized in a collage hanging near her desk in the White House press offices.
"Jen has funny little sayings that we've all adopted at work — 'eat your Wheaties' to prep for days that are expected to be grueling, 'sweet baby angel' for coworkers and reporters that are well-meaning, 'cats and dogs' to describe news topics that are all over the place, and 'you deserve a margarita' when you've handled a really tough issue," Simons said. "One day I thought it would be fun to make a collage of all our team jokes, and it just grew from there — now it even includes our Patronuses."
Simons also shared a memory of a day Psaki donated some of her old dresses to her co-workers, noting that the press secretary "has been in this business for a long time and has the wardrobe to prove it."
"One day she came to work with 15 dresses that she was ready to donate, and my coworkers and I were lucky enough to take home a few," Simons said. "I feel so proud every day I get to wear a Jen Dress!"
Courtesy of White House and White House Press Office Jen Psaki (left), Emilie Simons
Psaki's thoughtfulness extended to her penchant for giving recommendations, Perez told PEOPLE. When she was a few months into her own role, she mentioned offhand that she wanted to read more books, to take her mind off the stress of work.
"[Jen] said she'd send me recommendations of books that she loved herself. Surely enough, that night I received an extensive list of titles she'd read," Perez recounted. "She handed me a copy of a book the next day to get started. She continued to share books with me throughout the year."
Similar gestures were not uncommon, Perez said, noting that "birthdays are not forgotten," and when Psaki "asks how you're doing, she demands honesty."
Psaki — who began her role heading President Joe Biden's women-led communications team when he began his presidential term — recently told Fox News' Howie Kurtz she's leaving the job to spend more time with her young children.
"It is a huge honor to do it, no matter where you are in your life," Psaki said. "But I don't want to miss things with my kids and I don't want to miss moments or soccer practices or ballet recitals or anything."
White House Press Wrangler Megha Bhattacharya told PEOPLE that Psaki's family values are made very clear to those who work alongside her.
"I'll never forget that after my first Air Force One trip, I told Jen that I called my parents from the plane and they were so excited and emotional," Bhattacharya said. "Jen immediately jumped up and gave me the biggest hug and told me how special it was to hear that. It was such an emotional and kind response, I'll never forget how much family means to her."
And while she's the one being celebrated on Friday (her final day on the job), Perez told PEOPLE it was Psaki who most often celebrated others.
"She made everyone on our team, no matter how junior, feel included. If there's anything you need to know about Jen Psaki, it's that she's incredibly thoughtful and fiercely loyal," Perez said, adding that Psaki's office "was a refuge often on long nights, whether we were watching the State of the Union or tracking a late Senate vote."
Perez added of Psaki: "She lifts you up and is always, always in your corner."