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W.Va. woman helps decorate White House for Christmas

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Christmas stars aligned for Charleston's Kathy Gastinger and her sister, allowing the women to be part of the 2011 decorating team for the White House in Washington, D.C.

"We've watched the television show every season about the decorations at the White House," Gastinger said. "All the way back to Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon. We realized they were all volunteers who do the work and thought, 'Gee, we would love to do that!'"

Unbeknownst to her sister, Paula Krajcir, of Binghamton, N.Y., Gastinger did some online research to discover how to get picked to be one of the White House decorating elves.

"They said to write a heartfelt letter about yourself and why you want to come decorate the White House," Gastinger said. She laughed when she said her husband edited it for her.

"He said I was groveling a little bit, so we rewrote some of it," she said. "I told them that it was a big year for us, our 40th anniversary, and that my daughter Amy was leaving for the Peace Corps. I saved it to mail on my birthday -- I turned 62 on March 15."

She finally told her sister when they passed the first round of applications.

"She's a real history buff. There's nothing she doesn't know about the White House. We would be walking around, and someone would say, 'I wonder who that portrait is,' and she would know. She knew that Jackie Kennedy got the wallpaper in the Diplomatic Reception Room, things like that."

A formal request for clearance came in August, and the ladies sent information for background checks in September. By October, they were chosen along with 135 others to deck the famous halls.

"It was really amazing to open up your email and see a message from the White House Social Office," she said.

A Chicago marketing group, agencyEA, coordinated the design.

"The decorators there made up the whole plan. We were the worker bees. Each room had a team leader -- many of them were florists."

While most of America was thinking about shopping on Black Friday, the volunteers decorating America's house started their tasks at 7 a.m. in a Maryland warehouse.

"We worked Friday and Saturday from dark to dark," Gastinger said. "The projects were all lined up for us, thought out to the last detail. We would cut and glue and put the things together." Gastinger said many of the decorations were recycled from old trimmings, and the volunteers re-created them to go with this year's theme, "Shine, Give, Share."

That Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, they worked in the White House. Gastinger and Krajcir were assigned to the Vermeil Room on the ground floor of the building.

"It's next to the China Room, next to the Diplomatic Reception Room," Gastinger said. "It's called the First Lady's Sitting Room. There's a beautiful, very flattering portrait of Lady Bird Johnson over the mantel, in a yellow dress. The room is painted a beautiful butter cream yellow.

"We put up two small tabletop trees, but we had trouble getting them to stay upright. So the White House carpenter helped us. The White House electrician had to put the lights on, even though they were just those little Christmas lights," she said. "Many of the people who work there have been there for 20 years or more. One of them talked about meeting Princess Diana. They were all so nice."

Gastinger said that while helping a volunteer from Wisconsin, they tangled their tall aluminum ladder in one of the chandeliers.

"We heard a tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, plunk," she said. "We froze. The head usher ran over yelling, 'stop, stop, stop -- let the workmen get it out!' It was fine, but I was petrified -- it's a priceless 17th-century crystal antique.

"If we had to move furniture, there were curators there in white gloves to move things. At one point, one of them told us she couldn't believe we were using a chevalier round table as a workspace -- we had it covered with glitter, oasis floral foam, wire, clippers. We realized we really needed to clean it up," Gastinger said, laughing.

Most volunteers stayed in a hotel near the White House at a reduced rate, but Gastinger and Krajcir used credit card points to make the whole stay free for them at another hotel.

HGTV filmed the decorating process, with host Genevieve Gorder and a full technical crew.

"Our room didn't get filmed very much because it was the last to be done, but the HGTV staffers came in with hand-held cameras and chatted us up. Some of that will probably end up on the show that runs [today] at 8 p.m.," Gastinger said.

The decorating volunteers, along with year-round White House volunteers and many members of the military, were treated to a special unveiling of the finished project at a reception hosted by first lady Michelle Obama. Gastinger's husband, Bob, joined her.

"The food was fabulous, set up in the State Dining Room and the East Room, with an open bar. We all got to walk around, and even got to sit on the furniture," she said. "The volunteers weren't allowed to sit on the furniture while we were decorating."

Gastinger conceded she's always enjoyed decorating for Christmas.

"Yeah, my kids like to kid me," she said. "I suppose if I were to open up a store, it would be a Christmas store."

"Mrs. Obama calls it 'the people's house.' They expect 85,000 visitors to take the free tour of the holiday décor," Gastinger said.

Very few will have the experience that Gastinger had, eating lunch in the State Dining Room for three days in a row.

"That's my favorite room -- the paneling, the plaster ceilings, Abraham Lincoln's portrait over the mantel. It's a living museum."

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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