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A White House Christmas
Local woman recently helped decorate home of First Family
By Sally Voth
As a designer for more than 40 years, Mt. Jackson resident Gail Scherer has decked a lot of halls. She just never expected those decorated halls would be enjoyed by President Obama, his family and the entire nation.
Specializing in floral and interior design, Scherer took her talents to the White House last month as part of a team of 85 volunteer decorators. According to the official White House blog, the volunteers came from 39 states to trim the White House -- which has 54 trees.
Scherer decorated some of those trees, as well as several arches and mantles. The White House blog says volunteers worked to string 20,000 pompoms used to create the topiary of first dog Bo and decorated iron arches with more than "6,000 repurposed White House glass ornaments."
Although the pace was tough and the rules strict, Scherer said she felt "totally blessed" to be selected for the task.
"I did the West Wing," said Scherer, sitting in the living room of her beautifully appointed 1830 house outside Mt. Jackson. "My first job was the Oval Office. I thought, what a way to start."
The fresh trees were already in place, and on the day after Thanksgiving, the design crews were taken to a warehouse where all the decorations were waiting. They spent Nov. 24-27 decorating.
"Then, there was a reception hosted by Mrs. Obama Wednesday [Nov. 28]," Scherer said. "It was very nice. She's very cordial."
Each volunteer got to take one guest to the reception, but since not everyone brought one, Scherer received clearance to take not only her husband, Bill, but also her 89-year-old mother, Iona Wildt.
"She got to shake hands with Mrs. Obama," Scherer said. "That was a very special treat for her."
A security person was with the decorating teams at all times, she said.
"We were told not to touch anything, not to put our tools on any of the furniture, and not to sit on any of the couches and so forth," Scherer said.
The latter rule was bent at one point to allow her to sit down after she'd been atop a 20-foot ladder hanging archway decorations. A security officer saw Scherer's shaking legs and insisted on it.
At 68, she was the oldest on her crew, but also the only one willing to do design work so high off the floor. She has since seen online photos of President Obama with some of her decorations in the background.
"That was kind of exciting because, of course, we were not able to take pictures of anything," she said.
The materials the volunteers were given to work with were beautiful, according to Scherer.
"It would be like you going to the candy store and picking the best of everything," she said. "We probably used maybe 60 percent of what was made available to us in ribbons and ornaments."
Scherer did get to meet one other member of the president's family -- Bo, the first dog.
"[I] pet the dog, Bo," she said. "He runs around with the gardener. He was all over the White House."
Although she studied medical technology at the University of Evansville in Indiana, Scherer has spent most of her adulthood doing floral and interior design. When she had her children, she wanted to find something she could do from home.
"That was in the mid-60s when the crafts were really big," Scherer explained.
From there, her business flourished. Then, eight years ago, the couple moved to Mt. Jackson.
"I retired to become a full-time grandmother," Scherer said.
Her daughter, son-in-law and their four children live in Quicksburg, and her son and his family are in Washington, D.C.
"I was always really close to my own grandmother and wanted that relationship with my grandchildren," Scherer explained. "We love Virginia. It had always been a dream to own a historic home. So, we found this, and just thought it was perfect."
A friend from Indianapolis had done the volunteer decorating at the White House last year, and got Scherer to apply. Because family is so important to Scherer, she considered not accepting the volunteer position since she'd be gone on Thanksgiving, but her children insisted. She stayed at the Madison Hotel, about a half-mile away from the White House, and walked to the residence everyday.
She described the food as delicious, and all of the White House staff and security as very kind.
"The rooms are smaller than I thought they would be," Scherer shared. "The antiques there just blow you away. The artwork is incredible. My favorite was a huge picture of Lincoln."
Never in her wildest dreams did Scherer think she'd be decorating such celebrated rooms.
"That's not even something you even put on your bucket list," she said. "I just feel totally blessed."
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or email@example.com