RALEIGH - More than 30 years ago, the best North Carolina's Legislative Building could do for a Christmas tree was something decorated with foam balls covered in gold-and-white satin. It was more than Stan Yelverton could stand.
"It was a pretty sad sight," said the son of a man whose home annually won the annual home decorating contest in a small eastern North Carolina town
Yelverton sought, and was granted, permission to bring more flair to the holiday decorations. His efforts over the decades have included many hits - a tree decorated with cardinals and bird houses is a favorite - along with a few misses, such as the time he hung natural wreaths decorated with fresh fruit on the front doors of the west-facing building.
"They rotted very quickly and smelled horrible. I learned a lesson - always artificial out front," said Yelverton, the landscape gardener at the Legislature. The trees, however, are always natural since North Carolina is the second-largest producer of Christmas trees in the country, behind Oregon.
Yelverton's last day with the state was Dec. 18 and he is retiring at the end of year after 36 years working for North Carolina.
Yelverton, 61, was working elsewhere in state government when he saw that tree, then was hired at the Legislature. He's famous among the General Assembly members and staffers for his decorations.
This year they include four artificial wreaths on the front door; decorated trees at the foot and top of the entranceway staircase; a wreath with 100 artificial poinsettias on a third-floor window; poinsettias and wreaths in the fountain in the second-floor rotunda; and garland around the chandeliers in the public spaces, along with a third tree in the Legislative Office Building across the street.
He dates his interest in Christmas and decorating to his years growing up in Eureka in Wayne County in eastern North Carolina, home then to about 300 people. "The little garden club in Fremont would judge the houses in my town in Christmas decorating contests, and my father really got into it," he said. "So we'd meet around the kitchen table to decide what we were going to do each year. ... We had a good time. It was a good place to grow up."
The Yelverton home won the competition every year, he said.
He brought the talents he learned at the family table to the Legislature, where the tree at the bottom of the staircase is decorated in white and gold, with white poinsettias surrounding it, and the one at the top is decorated mainly in red, with red poinsettias at the bottom. The tree at the Legislative Office Building is decorated in the blues and greens of a peacock. "A friend of mine's daughter went as a peacock for Halloween, and I thought, 'wow, I like those colors,"' he said.
Some highlights - and lowlights - that he recalls:
- His favorite tree, the one he calls the snow tree, went up about five years ago. He decorated it in silver, blues and whites with mirrors on it. "When it got dark in the building, it glowed," he said.
- The tree he remembers the most clearly is the one he decorated three times. Then, about 9 p.m. on a Friday, he got a call: the tree had fallen down. He thought the caller was kidding. He had housekeeping drag it out of public view and returned Saturday morning to decorate it a fourth time.
- Early in his career, he learned legislative staffers were removing the poinsettias and putting them in their offices. He had to call on the House principal clerk to put a stop to that.
Yelverton's successor, Sarah Dickie, began her new job in early December, just in time to help with the decorating. "That is why I think they brought me on as quickly as they did because they wanted me to be here to see what was involved with it," she said. "That's going to be a challenge. I have a year to study it."
Before the legislative staffers clear out for the holiday, the poinsettias will be given to a charity as they are every year. But Yelverton won't be there to see that. Nor will he be around Jan. 2, when Dickie will start taking down the decorations and storing them in the boxes marked with the type of decoration and color that each holds.
And he's OK with that. "I'll probably miss it, but I won't cry," he said.
And for only the second time, he has a Christmas tree in his own home. "After putting this up," he said, waving at his decorations, "you're going...do I really want to put something up at home?"
This Dec. 17, 2013 photo shows Sarah Dickie checking the water level in a Christmas tree at the State Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C. Dickie will soon take over for landscape gardener Stan Yelverton, who's been doing the holiday decorating in he General Assembly's home for decades. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)×
In this Dec. 17, 2013 photo, Stan Yelverton and Sarah Dickie, right, stand in the lobby of the State Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C. After decades decorating the General Assembly building for the holidays, Yelverton is handing over the reins to Dickie. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)×
In this Dec. 17, 2013 photo, poinsettias decorate the rotunda of the State Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C.. These and other holiday decorations are the handiwork of legislative landscape gardener Stan Yelverton, who is retiring after 36 years of state service. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)×
This Dec. 17, 2013 photo shows Stan Yelverton standing beneath a wreath comprised of 100 artificial poinsettias in the front window of the State Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C. After 36 years, many of them as legislative landscape gardener and chief Christmas decorator, Yelverton is retiring from state service. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)×
In this Dec. 17, 2013 photo, Stan Yelverton poses amid some of his holiday decorations on the mezzanine of the State Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C. After 36 years, many of them as legislative landscape gardener and chief Christmas decorator, the Raleigh man is retiring from state service. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)×