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Getting to deck the president? Well, just his halls

Medford residents Eric and Lynne Dittmer worked five long days to decorate the old house for this holiday season.

Married for 44 Christmases, the couple went all out for this holiday, making garlands, wreaths and ornaments and hanging them throughout the historic house.

For them, it was a labor of love, one they described as exhilaratingly exhausting.

"The garlands were about a foot in diameter and 20 to 25 feet long — they were heavy," said Eric, 68, who spent much of his time on a scaffolding, draping garland. "They had to reach around the top of the Grand Foyer to the floor."

"But there were many cases in which you could not see the garland," interjected Lynne, 67, who made a lot of ornaments. "The garland was really a base for all the ornaments."

As you no doubt surmised, they weren't talking about hanging a few trinkets in their Medford home.

They were among some 70 volunteer Christmas elves from around the nation who spent the last part of November decorating the White House in Washington, D.C.

This was an apolitical gathering of folks from all walks of life and every corner of the nation drawn by their love of the holiday season and of the People's House.

But Lynne admits to an ulterior motive.

"One of my heart's desires was to give Michelle Obama a picture of one of our granddaughters," she confided.

We'll get back to their granddaughter Taylen in a bit.

The Dittmers applied to help decorate the White House after seeing a Home and Gardens TV documentary on the annual volunteer effort to bring holiday cheer to the most famous house in the nation. Guided through the application process by Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkeley's staff in Medford and D.C., they were selected this past summer.

They easily passed the security check, what with Eric being a professor emeritus of geology at Southern Oregon University and Lynne a retired accountant.

The couple, who had to pay for their own airfare and lodging, were not strangers to the district. They had taken the White House tour in the past.

Yet this obviously was a much more intimate visit to the three-level home. They worked on the second floor in historic sites such as the East Room, Red Room, Blue Room, Green Room, State Dining Room and the aforementioned Grand Foyer.

Secret Service folks, along with presidential portraits, kept a close eye on their activity.

"Our access was to the relatively public places," Eric explained. "I was outside the Oval Office once but I didn't leave my nose print on it."

"We were the worker bees," Lynne said.

The White House staff was friendly and helpful, and provided excellent lunches that included vegetables from the White House garden, they report.

"It was a gourmet feast every single meal," Lynne said.

Eric met one White House occupant while hanging garland in the East Room.

That's when the head groundskeeper came through with a Portuguese water dog named Bo, the first dog.

"We were talking and Bo was walking around us, sniffing things," said Eric, who stopped to pet the friendly pooch. "He has a great personality."

After working for five days, the volunteers were invited to a reception in the White House on Nov. 28, where first lady Michelle Obama personally thanked them.

"The reason I wanted to meet the first lady is that our granddaughter is adopted, and she has the same mixed racial heritage as President Obama," Lynne explained. "She is 6. And we talk about him to her all the time.

"We tell her, 'Honey, if you work hard, here is proof positive you can do anything you want to in this world,' " she added. "I wanted to give Michelle her photo and tell her to thank the president for being such a wonderful role model for kids like her."

Following her short presentation, Michelle Obama engaged with a few volunteers. The first one she talked to happened be Lynne Dittmer.

"Michelle was so gracious," said Lynne, who gave her Taylen's photograph. "She asked me what her name was and how old she was. She said our granddaughter was beautiful."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Eric and Lynne Dittmer were among the volunteers who recently decorated the White House for the holidays. - white house photo