For Frank Lazzaro, getting into floral design was an accident, a stroke of luck. What started out as a makeshift Christmas decoration in the Army eventually landed him in the Oval Office at the White House serving as Christmas decorator for three presidents.
The former Floral Park florist served at Fort Bragg, N.C. during the Vietnam War as supervisor of medical supplies in Womack Army Hospital when his boss made a request.
“I was in the military and my commanding officer needed a Christmas tree and some decorations,” Lazzaro said. “We had no money so we used Army socks and beer cans. We decorated a four-foot tree. My commanding officer said I should be decorating the general’s tree.”
When Lazzaro left the Army, he took a part-time job as a delivery man at the JFK Airport flower shop while attending Queensborough Community College and working at the Sunrise Drive-In Theater selling bouquets of flowers. He came across a magazine article in which former First Lady Betty Ford was seeking advice on tree decorating. He replied to the ad- with a picture of the barrack’s tree and a short letter.
“I wrote on the envelope ‘Hire a vet…it’s the best bet you’ll ever get,’” he said. “I didn’t think anything would come of it. It was for fun.”
What happened next was completely unexpected, Lazzaro said.
“The phone call from the White House changed my life,” he said.
Rusty Young, the chief White House floral decorator, called Lazzaro for an interview in Washington D.C. He was 24 years old and would go on to serve under the Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations until 1986.
“When I got there in 1974, he told me the first lady got my letter and passed it on and she wanted me to decorate the Christmas tree at the White House,” he said.”
Lazzaro, 64, designed floral arrangements, which sat on each side of the President’s desk. Lazzaro also created table arrangements in the White House and decorated the Blue Room’s Christmas tree. He also worked with the likes of famous chef Julia Child for state dinners.
“During the holidays, Mr. Young gave me a lot of freedom,” he stated. “I was the youngest there so I learned as I went along. Just by practicing, I eventually made great arrangements. I made them for the Green Room, then the Red Room and the next thing you know, I’m making arrangements all over the White House.”
During Reagan’s first term, the Smithsonian Institute loaned antique wooden train sets to the White House that were built during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Lazzaro carefully assembled the trains up underneath the 25-foot tree.
“I touched something that Lincoln held,” he said. “They were wooden soldiers and toys. I was beside myself. But Abraham Lincoln never had a tree in the White House. He worked on Christmas Day.”
Lazzaro at one point owned three flower shops on Long Island in Floral Park, Franklin Square and Mineola, which forced him to give up his position in 1986. The recession didn’t help, he said.
“I was extremely busy with the shops and getting them going and the added stress at the White House didn’t help,” he said.
Lazzaro resides in Levittown, where he does online floral arrangments and works as an activity coach for AHRC, a center that helps people with developmental disabilities, in Wantagh.
“I’m very happy working with AHRC,” he said. “I fell in love with this organization.”
While Lazzaro has gone from delivery man to top decorator, he still has a soft spot for that raggedy tree he decorated by in his 20s. “That’s where it started,” he said. “I just hope this ride never ends.”