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by Blair S. Walker, AARP Bulletin, November 17, 2009
Our national obsession with perfectly symmetrical Christmas trees has resulted in a return White House engagement for Eric and Gloria Sundback.
A glorious 18 1/2-foot Douglas fir from the couple’s Shepherdstown, W.V., tree farm was selected to be this year’s official White House tree. The Sundbacks’ scheduled visit with first lady Michelle Obama on Nov. 27, preceded by a tree-presentation ceremony, marks the fourth time for the couple to take White House bows for their exquisite boughs.
“When you go to the White House, they treat you the best you’ve ever been treated,” says Eric, 82, who’s been planting Christmas trees with his wife since 1956. “It’s like you’re an ambassador—or a king!”
The Sundbacks’ last regal reception was in 1987, during the Reagan administration. They supplied two trees for the Reagans, and one for the Carters. White House protocol dictates a brief meeting between the first lady and the White House’s tree supplier.
“Nancy Reagan was awfully pleasant, and Rosalynn Carter was just impressive and wonderful,” Eric recalls. “We thought she [Carter] was going to be the first woman president.”
A tree’s long journey
No other Christmas-tree-growing family, or company, has made it to the White House four times, says Pam Helmsing, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA). The Sundbacks were selected grand champion in a nationwide NCTA competition of tree growers last summer, Helmsing adds.
The Sundbacks began growing the tree, which will stand in the Blue Room, back in 1996. But most of their holiday business focuses on trees in the 8-foot range.
Those call for at least eight years of pruning as well as herbicides and fertilizers to produce a tree worthy of being proclaimed the living embodiment of Yuletide. Does it bother the Sundbacks that almost a decade of loving labor is casually discarded after a few weeks of holiday glory?
“I always look at it as, if I was a tree, would I rather be a Christmas tree, or would I rather be on a roll in your bathroom?” observes Gloria, 83. Her husband’s take is equally unsentimental.
“Name one thing that you don’t use and just throw away,” he says. “How about the flower business, how about the food business?”
Entering the business
The Sundbacks met in 1950 at Syracuse University, where Gloria was working on a Ph.D. in chemistry, and Eric had received a bachelor’s in pulp and paper. Trees may have been on his mind, but certainly not Gloria’s.
“If anybody had told me I’d wind up in the Christmas tree business,” she says, “I would have told them to go see their friendly psychiatrist.”
Married since 1951, the Sundbacks migrated to Washington where Eric got a job as a landscape architect and Gloria became a full-time homemaker and mother to their two children.
The tree business started as a hobby after moving to northwestern Pennsylvania. They purchased a few thousand foot-tall seedlings and stuck them in the ground, on land they had purchased. “That was a mistake,” he says. “We planted them on ground that had too much water on it and drowned the trees.”
A valuable, if painful, lesson on the vagaries of Christmas tree growing.
“More people have dropped out of this business than any other business I know,” Eric says. “It’s labor-intensive, and you have to have a gift for looking at a tree and assessing it.”
Masters of the art
The Sundbacks eventually mastered the business and sold trees on two lots in Washington. In 1980, the tree business became their sole source of income. Through sickness and in health, through killing frosts and bountiful harvests, the Sundbacks prospered to the point of purchasing a 160-acre tree farm in West Virginia.
They still look for stock from which to grow great trees. In September they drove their SUV and a trailer from West Virginia to New Mexico to collect more than a ton of cones from regal Douglas firs with strong, symmetrical branches, good color and good texture. They love what they do.
“You shouldn’t be in a business if that’s not the way you feel,” Gloria Sundback says.
Blair S. Walker is a Miami-based writer and frequent Bulletin contributor.
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