Sunday Conversation with … Deborah Lum

Deborah Lum was blown away by the decorations while touring the White House at Christmastime in 2009. This season the Fayetteville resident’s handiwork will stun an expected 90,000 visitors to the nation’s capital. For fives days in November, Lum joined more than 80 other volunteers who traveled from all corners of the country to make wreaths, hang garland and decorate trees at the country’s most famous address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Lum, who retired from a career in network news but continues to own a window treatment business, pitched to the White House her creative eye for design, work ethic and sense of humor. It worked. She liked the experience so much that she hopes to go back again next year.

To view a tour of the White House decorations, visit whitehouse.gov/about/inside-white-house/holidays.

Q: How did you get selected?

A: I wrote a letter to the White House social secretary last year but I did not get accepted. This year, I applied online and I got a notification at the end of September that I had been conditionally selected pending a background check.

Q: Did you apply because you like the current occupants?

A: That was a factor initially. But once you are there the politics just melt away. There is just so much history in the White House.

Q: How did the decorating work?

A: We were broken up into teams and given our assignment. The teams were from everywhere — Oregon, Tennessee, you name it. All teams spent the first two days at a warehouse working with various decorations, some repurposed from previous years, some handmade, and others brand new. The next three days were spent at the White House.

Q: How was it being in the White House?

A: It is surreal as you walk up the driveway. It is quite amazing when you’re in there and think about all of the people who have lived there.

Q: What was your assignment?

A: My team had the East Room, the largest in the White House. There were four 16-foot trees and I had my hands on three of them.

Q: Was the work hard?

A: Not at all. It was busy work and there was a little grunt work such as sweeping up glitter at the warehouse. But everyone pitched in and was glad to be a part of something special. The designer for our group was very talented.

Q: So there was a designer?

A: Every room had one and the design plan was already established. We were not just doing our own thing, but there were opportunities for individual creativity.

Q: Did the White House feed you?

A: A light breakfast and lunch. We ate in the old family dining room off of the main dining room. Every day lunch was different — some kind of soup, salmon, chicken, macaroni and cheese, Mexican food, sandwiches. There were great pastries and cake and ice cream was always served. It was nice being served by the White House staff.

Q: Did you get to see the other rooms?

A: On the last day small groups of volunteers were ushered through each room and allowed to take pictures. Each room was uniquely different and beautifully decorated.

Q: Did you ever see the first family?

A: We saw the first dog a couple of times. We never saw the children or the President. We saw Mrs. Obama at the reception she hosted for volunteers.

Q: How was that?

A: Cameras don’t do her justice. The First Lady was gracious and spent time greeting volunteers and thanking them for their service. The reception gave us the chance to see the results of our efforts, and it was magical! I think visitors will enjoy it as well.

The Sunday conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at ann.hardie@ymail.com.

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