LUDLOW — A Christmas ornament created by Ludlow native Tom Gaither is hanging on the main White House Christmas tree this holiday season.
Gaither, whose watercolor paintings are a favorite of Northern Kentucky art lovers, learned last August that he'd been chosen to create Kentucky's ornament.
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When the 65-year-old artist got the call from U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's office, his response was an enthusiastic yes, but he couldn't resist joking with the young woman who called.
“I said, ‘Yes, I'll do it,'” he said. “‘But I'm a watercolor painter. Is this tree going to be inside or outside? Because if it's outside, it'll wash off.'”
When his quip was met with silence on the other end of the phone, Gaither wondered if he'd gone too far.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I shouldn't kid with her,'” he said. “‘She'll hang up and get somebody else to do it.'”
Gaither, whose humor column ran for years in the Recorder newspapers, needn't have worried. A day later, a staff member from U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning's office staff also called with the same invitation. Gaither, who knows Bunning's wife, Mary, as an artist in her own right, informed the staff member that he'd already accepted the invitation from McConnell's office to design a Christmas ornament representative of Kentucky.
On Dec. 3, Gaither and his wife, Gee, attended a White House reception with first lady Laura Bush in honor of the artists who'd created Christmas ornaments representing each of the 50 states. Also honored was Northern Kentucky artist David Mueller, who created Ohio's ornament.
“Gee had been there a couple of times before,” Gaither said. “But I'd never been inside the White House. Just to wander around was fascinating.”
Gaither noticed a polished sword and scabbard tucked away in a display case in one of the rooms.
“I read the plaque and it said, ‘Presented to Zachary Taylor after the War of 1812,'” he said. “You can't walk through the White House without feeling a sense of history. Just the artwork is gorgeous, let alone the things from all over the world that have been given” to presidents.
For Kentucky's Christmas ornament, Gaither painted a Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse, after observing several at a Kenton County friend's home. He felt the horse captured the spirit and the history of the commonwealth.
The 1961 Ludlow High School graduate has always appreciated art, but he didn't do it professionally until 35 years ago when he opened a frame shop in downtown Ludlow. At the time, Gaither was drawing weekly pen and ink illustrations of local scenes for The Kentucky Post. He started experimenting with watercolors after he became friends with several local watercolor artists, including Cincinnati native Don Dennis.
“I have an older brother, Bill (W.D. Gaither), who, at one time, was the third-largest producer of wildlife art in the country,” Gaither said. “I was a year behind him in school, so he was a tough act to follow.”
These days, Bill Gaither is a nationally known sculptor living in Texas. His younger brother's watercolor paintings can be found in most of northern Kentucky's major hotels, and Tom Gaither's clientele includes regular customers from communities such as West Chester, Indian Hill and Hyde Park, as well as his native northern Kentucky.
“Tom is just a wonderful person,” said longtime customer Shawn Baker of Crestview Hills. “He has Ludlow and Northern Kentucky in his heart.”
Whether it's giving a speech, writing for the paper, or donating his artwork to charitable organizations for fundraising, Gaither is always quick to offer his services, Baker said.
“He's multitalented, but he's also a very down to earth person,” she said of the Fort Mitchell resident. “I think he's very mindful of the choice he made to have his business where he grew up.”