From John's farms to the White House

MOSSYROCK, Lewis County — I'm standing on a rain-dampened, narrow road the color and consistency of a broken-up Hershey's bar. Small noble firs flank the road, knee-high on my left, hip-high on my right.

And standing in front of me, in a tattered purple jacket, green coveralls, dirty boots and sandy-blond hair tossed by the breeze, is a guy on a first-name basis with the President of the United States.

Well, sort of.

John Tillman is the aw-shucks, self-effacing tree grower from Southwest Washington selected to provide three Christmas trees for the White House and Camp David this year.

Tillman and his family traveled from their home in the tiny town of Rochester, Thurston County — population 1,900 — to Washington, D.C., for the occasion, and the high point of their trip was 20 minutes in the Oval Office with The Man himself: Dubya. The Chief Executive. The Commander in Chief.

A cable-TV special had lots of glorious detail about the White House's seasonal displays, including the tally of 155,500 tree lights, but made no mention of Tillman's opening remark to the president.

"I think he knew we were just plain folks when we walked in and I said 'What an honor to meet you, George — uh — Mr. President.' "

Tillman immediately realized his slip. "It was completely by mistake because I had asked six times how to refer to him and Mrs. Bush. She's Mrs. Bush, not the First Lady, and he's Mr. President, not Mr. Bush — and definitely not George."

"He said, 'Oh, don't worry about that,' " Tillman recalled. "I think at that point, he figured, 'These guys are pretty harmless.' "

Champion tree grower

So what got Tillman into the Oval Office and, by the way, into a suit and tie for the first time since his 1989 wedding day?

Despite his humble manner, Tillman, 45, isn't just any old tree farmer. At a competition in Pennsylvania last summer, he and his wife, Carol, were named 2004 National Grand Champion Growers by the National Christmas Tree Association.

The appearance of an 8-foot-tall Douglas fir Tillman grew — full and symmetrical, with firm branches, straight top and deep green color — beat out two dozen competitors from across the country.

The Tillmans, owners of Northwest Plantations, sold about 20,000 trees wholesale this year. Although a few were sold on Christmas tree lots in the Puget Sound area, most went to California, where a top-grade noble fir between 7- and 8-feet-tall fetches $70 to $100.

The national championship carried with it the honor of providing a tree for the Oval Office, one for Camp David and one for the White House Blue Room, a formal reception area.

This is the seventh time since competition began in 1966 that a Washington state grower has been selected to donate the Blue Room tree.

There was just one catch, and this too, escaped mention on the TV special. The Blue Room requires an 18-½-foot tall tree, and Tillman doesn't grow any that big. Fortunately, he was able to get one from a friend and fellow grower, John Burton, of Mossyrock, Lewis County.

All three trees were selected in October by a White House contingent led by chief usher Gary Walters, who flew across the country to personally inspect the trees.

Northwest tree expert

Tillman, who's been working around Christmas trees since trimming them as a summer job at 15, doesn't just grow Christmas trees, he lives them.

He has given seminars, written articles, made a video and traveled as far away as Nova Scotia to share his expertise.

"He is kind of the premier shearing expert around the Northwest," said professor Chal Landgren of Oregon State University Extension Services. "He looks at it as more of a science and an art than a job."

Landgren said Tillman is known for such techniques as photographing a certain tree or farm from the same angle year after year to do a "time-lapse" study of how the trees develop.

"One of the biggest myths out there is that somehow we're going out and cutting them out of the forest," Tillman said. "This is an agricultural crop. We plant Christmas trees, and we harvest them. No spotted owl nested in these trees."

A Christmas tree glut in the early 1990s provided the Tillmans the opportunity to acquire tree farms from some proprietors getting out of the business; they now have eight farms in three counties, totaling 150 acres.

Tillman hadn't entered the national contest before, partly because he was reluctant to spend time away from his work for the trip back East. "Attention is fine," he said, "but my main motivation is to get that tree on that truck. That's what I'm all about."

He entered partly because his wife, Carol, said the chance to see D.C. would be a great experience for the couple's two children, Tyler, 13, and Rachel, 11.

Tyler, an eighth-grader, got his parents to rent him a black tux and fedora for the occasion, and his sartorial efforts were noted by the president.

"He said I was the sharpest looking man to walk into the Oval Office that day," said Tyler. "It was very cool."

Tyler, Rachel and Carol stayed in D.C. to help decorate the Blue Room tree, but John Tillman had to fly back to get to work.

Besides, he said the Blue Room tree, bearing ornaments made by artists in all 50 states, "was begging for mercy by the time they put all those ornaments on it. ... As a tree guy, I like to see some tree."

Jack Broom: or 206-464-2222