When the invitation comes from the White House, you don't ask many questions. So Dan Delk, a Columbus architect, wasn't sure what to expect when he was selected to help decorate the White House for the holidays.
When the invitation comes from the White House, you don’t ask many questions.
So Dan Delk, a Columbus architect, wasn’t sure what to expect when he was selected to help decorate the White House for the holidays.
But after working five straight nine-hour days, culminating in Wednesday’s unveiling of the decorations, he now knows.
“It was hard, physical labor,” the 51-year-old said. “I got so many cuts and bruises on me from jamming my hand and arm down into the center of these plants tying off the bulbs, and blisters from the pruning shears.”
Delk isn’t complaining. He’d do it again. In fact, he hopes to do it again.
Delk was one of 85 applicants chosen to help decorate this year. The volunteers represented a cross section of America and included one other Ohioan: Bill Hixson of Lakewood, who has now helped decorate for 31 straight years.
Delk had considered volunteering for years but kept forgetting to apply.
“This year, for some reason, in mid-July, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I went to the White House website and saw that there were two weeks left to apply.”
In his application, Delk described why his architectural training, volunteer experience and work ethic would make him an ideal candidate. He attached a photo of his living room decorated for the holidays.
In mid-October, he received a note from the White House that he had been accepted.
He learned that he and other volunteers would be working for agencyEA, a Chicago event-planning firm that has coordinated White House holiday decorations the past few years. He was told to be in Washington from Nov. 23 to 28.
He knew he could take one guest to Wednesday’s reception. He and his wife, Diane, decided the guest should be their 7-year-old son, Ethan.
Beyond that, Delk knew little, except to be in the lobby of the Madison hotel at 7 a.m. Nov. 23. There, the volunteers boarded a bus that took them to a Maryland warehouse full of decorations and craft materials.
They split into groups — Delk’s was responsible for several areas in the East Wing — and dove into crafting garlands, wreaths, ribbons and other flourishes.
Delk spent the better part of Friday and Saturday gluing red and white sequins into the shape of a star onto blue tree ornaments destined for what was called the “military Christmas tree,” one of 54 trees that decorate the White House this holiday season.
“It took me all morning just to do one and a half, but I finally got the hang of it,” he said. “ I finally lost count of how many I did.” Workers took a break for box lunches provided by the White House; otherwise, volunteers were responsible for all expenses.
The group spent Sunday through Tuesday installing the decorations at the White House, Delk’s first trip to the building.
“Walking around with all the access, unescorted inside and outside — it was just a thrill to do that.”
The volunteers were given assignments but some latitude. Delk’s group, for example, added red ribbon and a wreath to garland that framed an entrance.
Because of his 6-feet-3-inch stature and willingness to climb ladders, Delk was tapped by other groups to help reach the high spots in their areas.
He mingled with the staff and the Obama dog, Bo, but no famous people. The group did, however, know when Michelle Obama was using a nearby reception room because they were told to whisper.
One group member told Delk he experienced more.
“He was hanging something up when everything got very quiet, he said. Then all of a sudden the hair on the back of his neck stood up and he turned around and the president was there with his people. The president looked at him and gave him a thumbs up.” Other presidents mingled more with the decorators, said Hixson, 83, who has worked with five administrations. “Barbara (Bush) gave us a tour of the upstairs, where they did their own Christmas decorations.” Mrs. Bush and one of her grandsons even joined in an artificial snow fight.The aura of the White House made it hard for Delk to leave Tuesday.
“A small group didn’t want it to end. We were hanging around, cutting out stars, and finally they said, ‘OK, you’ve got to go.’?”
Delk returned for the reception late the next afternoon, where he finally learned the theme of the decorations: “Joy to All.”
An Oregon couple had an extra guest pass, which allowed Delk’s wife to go.
The family was crowded around first lady Michelle Obama during the reception when she reached out and pulled Ethan to her.
“I looked at her and she asked me my name,” said the second-grader at Ridgewood Elementary in Hilliard. “She asked me how old I was and I said 7. After that she said, ‘You’re pretty tall for 7’ and she gave me a high-five. Then I went right back to my mom.”
Speaking with Mrs. Obama was exciting, but it wasn’t Ethan’s only White House thrill.
“I met the first lady there,” he said. “And I talked to Santa.”