Friends chosen to deck presidential halls

A delicate glass tree with tiny, jeweled ornaments decorates Tom and Eileen Mulvihill's dining room table.

A big, red-bowed wreath decorates the front door of their New Milford home.

Other than those few tasteful signs of the holidays, the couple has been going simple this year.

With two adult daughters and a number of close friends who live out of state, the Mulvihills expect to be more guests than hosts.

Yet Eileen did not miss out on doing some significant holiday decorating.

The semi-retired horticulturalist spent almost a week after Thanksgiving with her close friend, Karen Corcoran, as holiday decorating volunteers at the White House, the iconic American mansion and home of President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters.

"This was a total fluke," said Ms. Corcoran, a former New Milford Board of Education chairman and Senior Center program director who now lives in Baltimore, Md.

It was Ms. Corcoran who talked Ms. Mulvihill into applying to be one of the select number of volunteers chosen for the White House holiday preparations.

"I was so surprised. I never thought we'd be chosen," Ms. Mulvihill said of the suggestion her friend had made in the spring.

Ms. Mulvihill's husband, Tom, is a former longtime assistant superintendent of schools in New Milford.

In September, the two women were named to the 130-person decoration team. Their 10-member group,

including a 12-year-old girl from St. Louis, Mo., and a 91-year-old man from Providence, R.I., was assigned to decorate the East Colonnade and the adjoining Bookseller's Room.

First, they had to go through bureaucracy and protocols, including Secret Service background checks.

The day after Thanksgiving, the two friends reported for duty at 7 a.m.

The first two days were spent doing prep work in a warehouse at an undisclosed location in Washington, D.C.

They then spent three days in the White House, the finale of which was an evening reception with their spouses, touring all the publicly accessible decorated rooms.

Their team assignment was to work with Chicago designer Jami Darwin Chiang, who designed elaborate paper and felt ornaments they would use.

The Bookseller Room's 15-foot tree required Ms. Mulvihill to climb a ladder to hang 150 multi-colored, felt ornaments cut from Ms. Chiang's templates.

"We were the worker bees," Ms. Mulvihill said.

The colonnade received a more traditional look. Wreaths decorated with white, hand-folded poinsettias graced the bank of windows, overlooking the East Garden.

The garland for an archway between the colonnade and the Bookseller Room was one of the team's most challenging tasks, requiring them to attach hundreds of paper holly leaves they had previously cut and wired together to create a three-dimensional effect.

During their stay at the White House, they also used black and white felt to make a larger-than-life version of Bo, the first family's Portuguese water dog. Four other Bo topiaries also were assembled.

One of Ms. Mulvihill's favorite first pet replicas was part of a lighted 400-pound, white chocolate and marzipan-frosted gingerbread replica of the White House.

"Bo is the cutest dog ever," Ms. Mulvihill gushed. "He is so sweet, so well-

behaved. Perfectly trained."

The volunteers didn't get to meet the president, but Ms. Mulvihill and Ms. Corcoran were treated to a greeting from the first lady.

"She is lovely,'' said Ms. Mulvihill of Michelle Obama, whom she described as tall, gracious and "very, very pretty."

Ms. Corcoran and Ms. Mulvihill agreed this was an unforgettable experience.

"Eileen and I kept saying, `Are we really here? I can't believe we're here.' " Ms. Corcoran said. "It was remarkable to be there ... just incredible."