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From WHS to the White House

Submitted Photo Kathy Briggs, a former WHS choir director who maintains ties to Worthington, prepares for a trip to the White House next week.

WORTHINGTON -- Many tourists to our nation's capitol willingly stand in long lines for a "cattle call" tour of a select few rooms at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.; rarely do they ever catch a glimpse of the current U.S. President and his family.

But though next week will mark Kathy Briggs' first visit to Washington, D.C., her Dec. 14 stop there includes a personal invitation to an afternoon holiday reception at the White House with President and Mrs. Obama.

Briggs, who from 1998-2006 was the Worthington High School (WHS) choral director, received the hand-addressed invitation over the Thanksgiving weekend, and immediately made plans to attend.

Her sister, Karen, will be her guest at the event.

"It's crazy exciting," expressed Briggs in a recent telephone interview from Portland, Ore., where she has worked since 2006 as the director of music and chair of the fine arts department at St. Mary's Academy, a Catholic all-girls high school. "This is a rather fantastic way to go for the first time, though -- by invitation from the President."

Preceding the invitation was another thrilling moment. Briggs, who had earlier in the fall signed up online for the "Women for Obama" campaign, was asked to be part of a Nov. 17 teleconference with Michelle Obama.

"Seeing as I work at an all-girls high school, and many of my students will be first-time voters next year, I was invited to ask the First Lady a question," Briggs said, noting she is always careful to keep politics out of her classroom though she does encourage her students to be aware of what is going on around them, be active citizens and know how legislation can affect them.

Because she was so nervous about querying Michelle Obama over the phone (she later learned that about 12,000 people were listening to the call), Briggs wrote out her question in advance.

She provided its text, a portion of which follows: "My name is Kathy and I'm a high school teacher at an all-girls school in Portland, Oregon. A lot of my students will be able to vote for the first time next November. What, in your opinion, is the most important reason I can give them as to why it's so crucial that they vote in this election, especially as young women?"

"Mrs. Obama replied that it's the civic responsibility of young women to be involved and to vote, and that their input would help shape their country," Briggs said of Michelle Obama's response. Briggs participated in the teleconference during her lunch hour.

"Whether you are a Republican, Democrat or Independent, speaking with the First Lady is a real honor," Briggs said, who of is paying for all her own travel and hotel costs associated with the trip.

Briggs' road to D.C. was not without obstacles, the most significant of which was that her major Christmas concert was also scheduled for Dec. 14.

"The enrollment at St. Mary's Academy is about 650 students, and I have three choirs: a non-auditioned Concert Choir with approximately 100 students, a vocal jazz/a cappella choir and an auditioned ensemble called 'The Marian Singers,'" Briggs said. "We have 10 performances over the next two weeks -- eight of them between now and when I leave for D.C. -- so it's not the easiest time for me to be away."

But Briggs' principal and school administrators recognized her opportunity as being valuable to the educational experience she gives her students, and helped her reschedule the concert for two days earlier.

"I'll fly out Tuesday, attend the White House holiday reception Wednesday, and fly back to Portland Thursday afternoon," Briggs said. "I'll be back in school teaching on Friday. It will be a short trip."

The dress code on the invitation specified "business or holiday," so Briggs chose a newer black formal dress from her existing collection of concert wear, opting to splurge on a new pair of shoes.

"They're three-inch heels, and I'm 5'9", but the Obamas are both tall, so that shouldn't be a problem," Briggs said with a laugh.

A native of Wisconsin, Briggs earned her bachelor's degree in music education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her master's in music education at the University of St. Thomas.

She is a little surprised at how much attention her trip to the White House is receiving in the Portland area. To date, she has been interviewed by three newspapers (The Tigard Times, The Portland Review and The Oregonian) and two radio shows, with a third radio interview lined up for the day after her return.

"If it were Worthington, I could understand, but you would think nobody in Portland had ever been to the White House before," Briggs said. "I'm not used to this; as a director, I'm more comfortable with my back to the audience, letting my students speak."

During her eight years in Worthington, Briggs led the WHS choral department and took a group of 50 students (and 10 adult chaperones) on a memorable 2005 tour to Europe.

While living in Worthington, Briggs was involved in various community activities and met her significant other, Nate Larson.

"Nate and I, of course, miss our friends and being closer to the Larson family," Briggs said. "I've been able to keep in touch with a lot of my students from WHS via Facebook, and I really miss my friends in the First United Methodist Church Choir, the Worthington Chamber Singers and at Memorial Auditorium.

"Luckily we'll be home this Christmas to see Nate's family."

Nate's mother, Jan Larson, a WHS counselor, is also thrilled for Briggs and her chance to get an insider's look at the White House and the First Family.

"She'll be at 'the little white house on the prairie' for Christmas," Larson said of her home on Worthington's Lake Avenue. "She is lucky to come here, because my house at Christmas is very special, too.

"It will be really fun to hear more about her White House experience."

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