A reception in the East Room, complete with Christmas decorations.
A reception in the East Room, complete with Christmas decorations.

December 15, 2016

Jill (Gaffney) Valde has come a long way from Breda.

About 1,108 miles, in fact.

And even if she had told the Franciscan Nuns at old St. Bernard High School in 1971 that someday she was going to grow up and decorate the White House, even the good Sisters might have had a hard time believing her.

But there she was the day after Thanksgiving standing among the portraits of presidents in the White House halls.

Valde was one of 125 volunteers hand picked by the White House staff from more than 5,000 applicants to create a lasting memory for President Barack Obama’s final Christmas this year in Washington.

Applicants were required to write an essay about why they would like to volunteer their services, and what special qualifications, if any, they had.

“I told them I grew up in a town of 25 in Ulmer, Iowa,” Valde said. “They asked me what kind of skills I had, and I told them I was a good mom, a hard worker, and had a great sense of humor. I guess that worked.”

The White House decorations are stored in a secret location in Maryland. Volunteers are sworn to secrecy, and the huge warehouse is guarded by Secret Service agents as work began. Inside are row after row of boxed decorations from Christmas Past — Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, on down the line.

The assembled group started off their week armed with hot-glue guns and 7,000 ribbons, more than 70,000 ornaments and 65 Christmas trees. They worked 12-hour days. The first two were in the warehouse.

The final two days were spent inside the White House assembling their work for the world to see.

On Sunday, they featured their decorations for a national audience during their annual White House Christmas show.

Finally, after all their work was done, the volunteers were treated in true Washington fashion with a two-hour lunch in the White House State Dining Room hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama, with free drinks and enormous mounds of food to choose from.

Valde, who is known to her former students at the University of Iowa College of Nursing as “Professor Valde,” recently retired after a career in hospital administration and then teaching in Iowa City.

Her husband Mike, who also just retired as an attorney for the University of Iowa, got to tag along to Washington, D.C., visit the sites, and attend a session of the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress.

The Valdes are back in Iowa City now, happy for this once in a lifetime experience.

There are fewer arguments this year over where to string the Christmas lights outside, or what ornaments to put on the tree.

After all, they are now professional decorators.

And although their house in Coralville seems a little smaller, they are very happy to be back in Iowa for Christmas.