washingtonpost.com  > Politics > Bush Administration > Inauguration

To Big Event's Volunteers, No Job Is Too Minor

Thousands Drawn to Help

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page B01

Inaugural volunteers have been streaming into Washington, joining thousands of local volunteers for a momentous task that is honor, duty and job networking all rolled into one, and more of them are scheduled to arrive this week.

Florists from Hawaii, Boy Scouts from Texas, students from Wisconsin and former political candidates from Oklahoma are among the many crashing on friends' couches, sleeping in hotels at the inaugural committee's expense or footing their own bills.

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Each volunteer has small tasks that might seem minor, from giving directions to a ticket holder to stripping the thorns from roses intended for a floral centerpiece. But taken together, more than 5,000 volunteers are the gears that allow the inauguration to unfold. Without them, it wouldn't be possible to stage three days of events, including a fireworks display, a military salute, the Jan. 20 swearing-in ceremony, nine balls and an inaugural parade with 10,000 marchers.

In charge is a 24-year-old campaign and convention veteran named Gordon Pennoyer. His desk is a bare cubicle at the front of a volunteer "war room" on the fifth floor of the Mary E. Switzer Building, three blocks from the Capitol, and headquarters for the Presidential Inaugural Committee. His main tool is his BlackBerry.

"We've had no problem getting volunteers; calls are going through the roof," said Pennoyer, who last year coordinated absentee ballots in New Hampshire and made sure escalators ran in the right direction at the Republican convention in New York. As he speaks, his BlackBerry vibrates repeatedly. Someone wants a pianist to entertain visitors picking up tickets at the will-call window in L'Enfant Plaza. Someone else wants a volunteer who is comfortable with horses to help at the parade staging area.

"It's just one of those unbelievable events for people who are excited about this president," Pennoyer said. "We have folks who could be out at a parking lot at the convention center the whole time and never get near a ball, and they're still so honored to be a part of it."

On Saturday afternoon, for example, C. William Spencer, a retired hospital administrator from Arlington, Texas, escorted 44 members of the Tejas District Color Guard as they got off a plane at Reagan National Airport. They were Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Explorer Scouts and Venture Scouts, ages 8 to 19, who have pressed their uniforms, combed their hair and been told -- based on experience -- not to pack any fireworks. The scouts might hold a record for breaking crystal chandeliers in Tarrant County, for not dipping their flags at the right time, Spencer said, but they have been practicing hard to smoothly present 30 historical flags simultaneously.

The Tejas scouts worked the last inaugural, delivering welcome gifts to VIPs, distributing programs at the swearing-in and standing as honor guard at a ball at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, 22 on each side of the stairs, three steps apart. They're not yet sure what their duties will be this time, but they're excited.

"They are totally pumped," Spencer said in a phone interview. "I can't tell you what it's like, when you drive or walk down Pennsylvania Avenue at night, and they just see the Washington Memorial, the White House, the Capitol," Spencer said. "You don't have to worry about discipline. The kids are just awe-struck."

And amused. For the last inaugural, the scouts stayed in a hotel near the Capitol frequented by ladies of the night, Spencer said. "We had no idea. They actually approached some of these boys, while they were in uniform. This time we're in Falls Church."

By today, as the scouts take in the monuments, about 200 floral designers, wholesalers, growers, drivers and people trained to condition flowers will be hunkered down in a freezing warehouse in Southeast Washington. There, they will pour and mix concrete to make foundations for seven-foot topiaries and assemble three truckloads of roses, lilies, hydrangeas, tulips, gerber daisies and other flowers into tablescapes, centerpieces and vine-trimmed foliage.

"There's a committee that has designed and organized what types of flowers are going where. When we come in, we break into teams, and each team will have a specific event to work on -- a ball or a reception or a dinner -- and then we literally deck the place with centerpieces and swags and adornments," said Wendy C. Fike, a volunteer who owns Lakeridge Florist in Woodbridge. "We want to create an impression."

At inaugural headquarters, a team of volunteers was positioned behind laptops, juggling phones, calling up spreadsheets and sending messages. E-mails had been sent to define the volunteer assignments. Pennoyer expected the phones to ring with complaints. Instead, he said he was still getting more people trying to volunteer.

Greylen Erlacher, 20, who was answering phones, was one of the first people to e-mail Pennoyer about a job. "I love the city and Washington and, hopefully, I'll be able to come back," said Erlacher, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "This is an environment where I'll be able to work in the future."

For now, Erlacher is sleeping on an air mattress in a basement in Georgetown ("It's really not that bad," she said). At work, she helps enter volunteers into a database and gets their photographs to the Secret Service. Next week, she will help with the Constitution Ball and the national prayer service.

There are no set rules for deciding who gets to wear black tie and help at a ball, and who must bundle up and direct people to first-aid stations, Pennoyer said. "There's no hierarchy in the volunteer system," he said.

There is an attempt to match skill sets and jobs because the committee wants the inaugural to be a memorable experience for the volunteers. "Folks with press backgrounds will be hanging out with press and escorting them," Pennoyer said. "People who are experienced at transportation and logistics, they like pushing people through metal detectors -- they're used to rallies."

Some well-connected volunteers will help at events where they are sure to see the president.

John English of Cordell, Okla., a Republican candidate for the state legislature who lost his last election, will help at the Chairman's Reception on Tuesday night, the Chairman's Brunch on Wednesday morning and one of the candlelight dinners Wednesday evening, events at which President and Laura Bush and Vice President and Lynne Cheney plan to stop.

"We'll be missing the swearing-in because we won't be helping out there, but during the parade we will be in the White House, helping friends and family," said English, the son of former Democratic Oklahoma congressman Glenn English.

John English and his wife, Courtney, were visiting his parents in Washington over the holidays when they ran into a friend who works in the vice president's office, and the friend suggested they volunteer. The couple signed up and, not hearing anything, began to drive back to Oklahoma. They were four to five hours into the return trip when they got a call from the inaugural committee. "My wife and I pulled over, talked over a Biggie-sized coke, thought about it for 10 minutes and turned around," said English, who turned down an offer to become executive director of the Republican House Study Committee to volunteer.

Now he and his wife are helping at inaugural headquarters. Tinsel and bunting decorate the hallways outside the volunteer office, but the only flourishes in the war room are a sign posted on a desk that reads, "Speed Limit 3.2 mph" and a white board tracking the number of volunteers.

On the board are some impish quotations that hint at the reality and sense of humor of many volunteers. "Should I get my hair dyed before I get my picture taken, because I am going to dye it before the inauguration," reads one. Another, marked Volunteer Quote of the Day, reads, "I want to be stationed at 17th Street NW for the parade."

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