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White House tree gift of Sundbacks

By Staff | Oct 23, 2009

White House Chief Usher Stephen W. Rochon, center, prepares to ribbon an 18.5-foot-tall Douglas fir grown by Eric and Gloria Sunback at their Engle Molers Road Farm. Behind Rochon is Superintendent of the White House Grounds Dale Haney. Photo by Daniel Friend/Chronicle

MOLER’S CROSSROADS – White House Chief Usher Stephen W. Rochon came to Shepherdstown Monday with specific instructions from First Lady Michelle Obama: Get a beautiful, “full” Christmas tree for display in the Blue Room.

After making a 9 a.m. Tuesday tour of Eric and Gloria Sundback’s tree farm along Engle Molers Road – carefully measuring and inspecting three seemingly flawless evergreens- Rochon and Superintendent of the White House Grounds Dale Haney gave their hearty approval to the fourth candidate.

With leaders from the National Christmas Tree Association and journalists from The Washington Post and local newspapers in tow, the Sundbacks presented four options Tuesday to Rochon and Haney, who were accompanied by a member of the First Lady’s press office.

Circling the storybook perfect 18-foot Douglas fir, pulling back some branches and poking his head way in to check the trunk size and branch strength, Rochon asked Eric Sundback “What did you do to get that shape?”

“Picked its mother properly,” Eric Sundback answered. “This is genetics.”

His wife Gloria quickly added “You control the mother and the father; there are no alley cats” in the lineage.

Rochon noted the tree fits the First Lady’s requirements perfectly. “Out of the four trees, it’s really a great selection,” he said. “We get to keep our jobs, I think.”

Rochon is a retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral. He is the current Director of the Executive Residence and White House Chief Usher. He served his last day on active duty with the Coast Guard on March 9, 2007, and began his service at the White House on March 12.

The Sundbacks, both in their 80s, are providing the White House tree this year because they are the 2009 National Christmas Tree Association Grand Champion Christmas Tree Growers. The organization has provided the White House tree every year since 1966.

The Sundbacks have provided the White House Christmas Tree – “a gift to the American People” – three other times, the first two winners selected in 1979 and 1981 from their farm in northwestern Pennsylvania.

The Sundbacks’ near-perfect trees are a product of decades of development and trials, Gloria Sundback said, noting she and her husband have collected hundreds of tree seed samples in the Rocky Mountains from British Columbia to the Mexican border and brought them back to West Virginia for growing. Eric Sundback holds degrees in forestry and horticulture/agronomy and is also a licensed landscape architect.

In 1967, the Sundbacks started retail tree sales lots in Bethesda, Md., and Washington. For 40 years, he ran one lot while she ran the other. Three years ago, they passed the retail side of their business to two veteran employees.

By Christmas 1987 – the third time they provided the tree for the Blue Room – the Sundbacks’ award-winning trees were well-rooted in Jefferson County soil, the couple having purchased a farm near the intersection of Engle Molers and River roads in 1974. In those years, they and their school-age children would travel on weekends and holidays from their home in Washington to work on the farm. Now, they grow their trees a little farther down the road.

And 30 years after they first presented a White House Christmas Tree to Rosalynn Carters and, later, two to Nancy Reagan the Sundbacks are looking forward to greeting their third First Lady on Nov. 27 with her first Jefferson County Christmas tree. The selected tree will be harvested in late November.

The White House staff arrived in Shepherdstown Monday and enjoyed dinner with the Sundbacks at the Bavarian Inn Restaurant. “I was so impressed with the Bavarian,” Rochon said. “I’m going to bring my wife back.”

Following Tuesday’s tree selection, Rochon and Haney attached a large, gold bow to the 14-year-old Douglas fir and posed for pictures with the Sundbacks. Before the press, other growers and the White House staff departed, the Sundbacks brought out cookies and West Virginia grown apples for all.

“They definitely will meet the first family,” “I mean how could you turn these folks down? They’re the sweetest people in the world.”

Rochon said in addition to the Blue Room tree, the White House will be decorated with some two dozen other trees, many of those also from the Sundback farm. Tree selection is just one of a long list of duties held by Rochon, who heads a staff of 95 people ranging from butlers and chefs to plumbers and electricians. (There are even four calligraphers on staff.) The original mansion is about 55,000 square feet, with later additions bringing total square footage to more than 200,000. Haney is in charge of the 18 acres of grounds and gardens.

Christmastime at the White House is very special, Rochon said, noting the tree selection happens “only one day a year.” He said his time with the Sundbacks was very enjoyable and added the people of Shepherdstown “are wonderful.”

“This place … this really is God’s country,” Rochon said. “The hills, the trees, the cornfields – D.C. doesn’t have that.”