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Lexington mother, daughter help decorate White House

The White House Christmas diplomatic reception room was one of the rooms that Janie Polk of Lexington and daughter Mary Dike Midkiff helped to decorate shortly after Thanksgiving.
The White House Christmas diplomatic reception room was one of the rooms that Janie Polk of Lexington and daughter Mary Dike Midkiff helped to decorate shortly after Thanksgiving.

Before the White House could show off its holiday decorations, it needed the help of Janie Polk of Lexington, her daughter Mary Dike Midkiff of Louisville, and 145 other volunteers.

"It was my 80th birthday, and Mary thought we should celebrate in a special way, and we did," Polk said.

While watching an HGTV program about the White House decorations in 2010, Midkiff learned that helpers were needed.

"There was a White House staffer on the program who said volunteers help with the house, and you could go online to apply. That's what I did.

"I know they get thousands of applications, so I did everything I could to honor my mom," Midkiff said.

"Everything" included getting some assistance from Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear and U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, whom Polk said she has known since before she born.

The women flew to Washington the day after Thanksgiving and spent the next six days helping to turn the White House into a holiday showplace.

"The White House is just gorgeous," Polk said. "And the ceilings are 20 feet high, and there are so many ornaments and so much garland and so many wreaths, and they're all hanging high."

The first day was spent in a warehouse, unpacking boxes of garland and ornaments, and then repacking them in boxes that were labeled for the room to be decorated. The next day, the women were put to work with the help of a professional decorator.

"We worked in the library first," Polk said. "It's a beautiful room with a huge oriental rug and books on shelves with deep-red walls behind them. We decorated the mantel and a tree. Of course, we weren't allowed to sit down because, well, it's a museum."

Library decorations included deep-red ornaments, pinecones covered with glitter, and a tree with white lights and gold ornaments "that picked up the colors in the rug."

Mantel decorations had to wait until a piece of Plexiglas was installed over it so the decorations wouldn't mark the paint.

"Originally they brought us a box of boxwood branches to decorate the mantel, but they were too heavy, so we were given bay leaf branches instead. We scattered those across the mantel with red ornaments. It was just gorgeous."

The women then worked in the diplomatic reception room, an oval room with murals on the walls. Again, they decorated trees and the mantel.

"We had the mantel nearly done when someone from the White House said we had to remove some of the tall pieces," Polk said. "Apparently, diplomats get their pictures taken in front of the mantel, and they didn't want pieces of stuff looking like it was sticking out from their heads."

The volunteers started work at 7 a.m. and finished about 4 p.m. A hot lunch was served every day in the state dining room. Polk said she saw Bo, the first family's dog, but she wasn't allowed to touch him. She saw HGTV decorator Genevieve Gorder, who hosted the White House Christmas show, nearly every day, and one day Polk heard first lady Michelle Obama talking.

"I was in the same room with her, but with the cameras, I couldn't see her. I'm too short," Polk said.

Upon completion of the decorating, the volunteers attended a party to see their work. "We just kept pinching ourselves," Midkiff said.

Friends have caught glimpses of Polk and Midkiff on the HGTV show — they are standing next to the Christmas tree in the library when Gorder is in the room — which originally aired Dec. 11.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Polk said.

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