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Christmas Christmas at the White House

Kalaheo woman one of 80 volunteers to decorate the president’s place

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Posted: Monday, December 16, 2013 1:00 am

LIHUE — Patricia Vialpando Birge has a heart for American history.

And her track record of teaching the subject to high school students for 23 years in Denver proves it.

Over two decades of condensing roughly 250 years of the United States’ past has left her with a list of what she considers great American presidents, even underrated ones, and who can spend a career on one topic without having favorite periods of their own?

“I miss teaching everyday,” the Kalaheo woman said. “I loved it.”

Not that her mind for instruction left after she retired. Nope. And the draw of the nation’s capital, with its monuments, markers and historic sights, never waned.

“There’s so much history in Washington,” she said. “I’m always excited about that.”

But it was her teacher’s mind, the one that asks why, or how, that landed her in the District of Columbia on Thanksgiving and gave her direct access inside the White House.

That’s to say, she’s responsible for how the president’s home looks right now.

Those giant wreaths? She had a hand in that.

The Christmas trees, 45 of them to be exact, that’s some of her doing, too.

And floor-to-ceiling lights, well, plenty of those were stung because Patricia and 79 other volunteers spent 10-hour days decorating the White House for the holidays.

“It was such fun being in that house and not on a tour,” said Patricia, who applied and was accepted to be one of the decorators, the lone representative from Hawaii, President Barack Obama’s home state. “People forget he’s from Hawaii. They really do.”

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, she said, but that didn’t mean it was easy. Far from it. Per presidential tradition, the decorations are selected by the first lady, and the trees, lights and nativity scene where the wise men stood two-feet tall, blew her away.

“They were fabulous,” she said. “They really were.”

The idea came to her after she watched a television show on the White House decoration process. Curiosity peaked, she took to the Internet and looked up how one would go about becoming a volunteer.

“I’m one of those questioning-types of people,” she said. “I want to know how you do that.”

The search took her to the White House website, where an application requiring a personal essay was waiting.

Patricia, a history buff, wrote that she looked at Christmas as a multicultural event, just like how she taught America’s history, the melting-pot country that’s blended with old European, Native American, Hispanic, Hawaiian and many other roots.

“I was really shocked I was accepted,” Patricia said, an acceptance which made her the farthest-traveled volunteer (an Alaskan couple came in second). “I thought, ‘Really?’ Wow.”

On the first day of the trip, Thanksgiving, the 80 volunteers were taken to an undisclosed warehouse to pick up boxes.

“I don’t even think we were in Washington D.C.,” she said.

After packing several  trucks to the brim, they unpacked the boxes at the White House over the course of two days, where the real work began. Patricia was assigned to the eastern end, the opposite side of the West Wing where the big decisions are made.

The 10-hour days throughout the week made her feet hurt, but through it all the entire house went on with business as usual, and the comings and goings of governmental figures, like Secret Service agents scuttling about, lent an at-home feel.

There went the Obama family’s dogs, under the watch of a trainer, and Patricia bent down and petted Bo, the neutered male Portuguese water dog who is as famous as any real canine can be.

Heck, the pup was even on the cover of The New Yorker after the first family chose him.

“Those dogs are loved,” she said. “Trust me.”

As for gingerbread houses, the White House has one of those, too. It’s about three-feet tall, and despite it being a spot-on replica of the real White House, it’s susceptible to all the same predators regular gingerbread houses are.

“It’s said people have chipped off pieces,” she said. “Even some of the presidents.”

Excessive decorations at the White House rile watchdogs every year on the lookout for wasteful government spending. The Obama administration caught some flack a couple of years ago when it upped its Christmas tree total to 54 when some families were still hurting from the economic recession. But newspapers weigh in on the topic every year and, according to the Baltimore Post-Examiner for one, the trees as well as all the decorations around the grounds are donated by groups and individuals through various Friends of the White House organizations.

“It’s the White House,” Patricia said. “Wouldn’t we want the absolute best for the White House? Of course we would. It was well deserved. It’s the people’s house.”

As for the history of it all, that wasn’t lost on Patricia.

She counts Harry Truman as one of the best presidents, Jimmy Carter as an underrated one considering his work after he left office and the civil rights and Vietnam eras as her favorite to teach.

But she took in the paintings of past presidents while in the White House and gawked at China from the Madison Administration. Often overlooked tidbits, the teacher added, were the facts that the original White House burned down in 1812 and President Truman pretty much gutted the place, so it had to be redone after he left office.

Patricia, who made the trip with her husband, Vietnam veteran David Birge, is a big supporter of Obama. A treat was delivering a hand-written note from her grandson to an aide, who said he’d pass the note to the commander in chief. Her grandson dreams of growing up like the president, even attending the same school Obama did, Punahou High School, on Oahu.

Another highlight was saying hello to first lady Michelle Obama, who circled back to smile at Patricia during the volunteer thank you reception at the end of the week after Patricia called out her name.

The food they served the volunteers during the reception wasn’t bad either: hams, oysters on the half shell, you name it.

“I was just blown away,” Patricia said of the whole experience, one that left her unsure if any other capital visit could top it. It was a total honor.”

• Tom Hasslinger, managing editor, can be reached at 245-0427 or thasslinger@thegardenisland.com.

© 2015 Thegardenisland.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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