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Alumna decorates the White House

Annie Ballantine '05, an adjunct faculty member at St. Catherine University, was chosen as one of 15 professional designers to decorate the White House for Christmas 2011.
Annie Ballantine '05, an adjunct faculty member at St. Catherine University, was chosen as one of 15 professional designers to decorate the White House for Christmas 2011.
Photo courtesy of Annie Ballantine.

While Minnesotans were sitting down to their Thanksgiving dinners, Annie Ballantine ’05 was sitting on an airplane headed for Washington, D.C.

The interior designer and St. Kate’s adjunct faculty member was among 130 volunteers chosen from a pool of thousands who offered their tree-trimming energy and talent to First Lady Michelle Obama for the 2011 holiday season.

The road to her adventure began seven months ago with a letter to First Lady Michelle Obama making her case for the opportunity. It took the First Lady’s staff five months to pore over the letters and choose those who would be asked to formally apply, but Ballantine was among them. In late September, she was notified that she was conditionally selected based on the completion of the mandatory six-week White House security check. Once cleared, she was confirmed and given her credentials for the “designer dream job.”

'White House elves'

For the first two days, Ballantine joined volunteers at an undisclosed secure warehouse location to become, as she described it, “White House elves.”

“We crafted decorations. There were easy tasks — wiring ornaments for the trees — and not so easy tasks, such as crushing pine cones for hand-made photo frames on the Blue Room Christmas tree,” said Ballantine. 

Then came her big break.  

“Somehow I ended up wrapped in plastic from head to toe, working in a spray booth for all of workday No. 1 and a few hours on workday No. 2,” she said. "I sprayed every single leaf — top to bottom — on fake Boston ivy garlands that were used in the east entrance of the White House, round ornaments that decorated the military tree in the White House Blue Room and stars for the Gold Star Family tree.”

Ballantine believes it was her can-do Katie spirit wielding the spray paint that propelled her to a position of team leader as the “White House elves” operation moved to the White House. 

“Arriving at the east entrance to the White House was to me what Disney is to a 5-year-old.  The experience was purely magical!"

Leading the design team

Ballantine’s 15-member team grew to nearly 50 by the end of the third decorating day in the White House as volunteers finished their first assignments and were reassigned.

Ballantine was assigned to the Grand Foyer on the State Level of the White House that connects the Green, Blue, Red and East rooms leading to the State Dining Room. It is the grand entry from the north portico of the White House and also contains the grand stairway to the President's private residence.

“My team was in charge of the four large Christmas trees on display in the Grand Foyer. The trees were gorgeous, full, 16-foot Christmas trees. We placed thousands of ornaments on these trees. My team was also responsible for wreaths, garlands and two large spiral topiaries,” she said.

During the first two days at the White House, volunteers were joined by fellow-Minnesotan Genevive Gorder, who led an HGTV crew through the creation of a White House Holiday Special that will air at 7 p.m. on Dec. 11.  

“Highlights during my workdays at the White House included: seeing and walking beside Bo— the 'first fur kid,' eating my lunches in the State Dining Room beneath President Lincoln's portrait, White House ice cream (it's the best!), having lunch with Genevive from HGTV, seeing Mrs. Obama and just working in the White House!”

'Shine, Give, Share'

The first White House holiday party of the season celebrated the volunteers’ efforts and came complete with the President’s Marine Corps Band and the famous “Bo sugar cookies.”  The next day, Dec. 1, 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled the 2011 White House holiday theme, “Shine, Give, Share,” and welcomed military families to the White House that evening.

During December, more than 85,000 people will either tour or visit the White House for the holidays.

“There was a great mix of people,” Ballantine said of her fellow volunteers. “I was very impressed by the diversity and the varying levels of ability — it was inspiring.”

Returning to Woodbury, Minn., to decorate her own home this year was an unusual experience for Ballantine. After spending so many hours decorating our nation’s home she had to find the energy to deck the halls of her own home.

“Decorating my home wasn’t quite the same grand scale of the White House, but I still like to do the holidays in the big way,” she said. “I was inspired to revamp the look of our own Christmas tree and tried to carry elements of Mrs. Obama’s theme, 'Shine, Give, Share,' into my own home and holiday decorations. Front and center on the tree is my White House 2011 holiday ornament to remind me of my truly awesome and exhilarating experience."

(Thumbnail photo occasionally appearing on University home page courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.)

Dec. 9, 2011 by Julie Michener

See also: Alumnae/i, Arts, Faculty, Leadership