Three-time cancer survivor helps decorate White House for holidays

Patty Goethals of Newport Beach was invited to decorate the White House for Christmas along with other volunteers.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Tom Goethals had a secret.

The Newport Beach resident had watched his wife, whom he had loved since high school, weather round after round of radiation treatment for breast cancer. It was her third time battling cancer since 1988. First it had been skin cancer, then uterine cancer.

Unbeknownst to her, Goethals, an Orange County Superior Court judge, had written to the White House in 2009. Could his wife, Patty, lend her decorating skills to the nation’s most famous residence for Christmas?

The answer was no.

This year, he wrote again. He described his wife’s battles with cancer. He said Patty, 62, an art major in college, had run a decorating business for more than 20 years.

“More important, she is a great wife and a brilliant mother to our three now-adult children,” he wrote. The couple have been married 38 years.

His plea was among several thousand applications this year from volunteers nationwide vying to be part of the annual White House decorating.


Then one night in October, an email from the White House landed in Patty Goethals’ inbox.

“I looked at him and I said, ‘You did this?’ ” Patty recalled.

“I was in shock.”

The next few weeks were a whirlwind.

Thanksgiving found her standing in the lobby of the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C. She met the 105 other volunteer decorators, chosen from all 50 states and representing various walks of life. Nearly two dozen had served in the military or had a family member in the service, she recalled. One man said he had once guarded Air Force One.

At 6 a.m. the following day, the group took a 40-minute bus ride to a secret warehouse chock-full of decorations from every presidential era.

Standing in the vast space, Patty waited to hear which room of the White House she would be assigned to decorate. She hoped it would be the State Dining Room, commonly known as the Lincoln Room because of the painting of the nation’s 16th president that hangs over the fireplace.

Patty said her husband is a Lincoln buff and her first grandson was named after the former president.
Then she heard her name called.

“They called out Patricia Goethals, State Dining Room,” she recalled. “I got goose bumps. I was ecstatic.”

Two days later, Patty stood in the State Dining Room unpacking ornaments with the seven other decorators assigned there. For three days, they decked the room with live garlands and climbed atop 25-foot scaffolding to adorn the highest branches of the Christmas tree.

They glued teddy bears and candy canes to boxwood wreaths. They created oversize wooden Scrabble pieces to array on the mantle. Scrabble, the volunteers learned, is the favorite game of President Obama’s daughters.

On the last day, the head pastry chef wheeled an ornate gingerbread house into the State Dining Room. First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at a dinner reception to thank the volunteer decorators.

Tom accompanied Patty to the reception and saw her handiwork.

Now that she’s home, she still pinches herself.

“What a sweet, loving husband I have,” she said.

After beating cancer three times, Patty has felt life’s hard knocks. But this holiday season, she saw “her dream turn into a reality,” she said.

“We all have our trials. We all have something,” she said. “I wake up and every day is a new gift and a new blessing.”

Nicole Knight Shine writes for Times Community News.