Laura Dowling went from a childhood in a lush garden overlooking Chehalis to a career of “floral diplomacy” as the official White House florist for six years of the Obama administration. It was a delight to talk with her recently about the new Christmas wreath postage stamps she designed. (See the story on the front page of today’s Chronicle.)
The conversation veered to her deep roots in Chehalis and what it has meant to her to come from here.
Dowling wrote about her childhood in Chehalis in her first book, “Floral Diplomacy.”
She has just published her fourth book. “Bouquets” comes out in January.
It’s a how-to book with 75 bouquet designs and related recipes selected to convey positive messages of serenity, joy and celebrations.
Some of the designs come straight from her childhood in the Northwest, including one inspired by the alpine meadows and wildflowers of Mount Rainier.
The beauty of nature is powerful, but it’s also the support of her childhood community that endures.
“No matter where you come from,” Dowling said, “(even) if you have limited means, if you have this strong family and community support, it is possible to dream and achieve beyond your wildest expectations, which is certainly true for me.”
Dowling’s grandparents had an antique business located near the Darigold plant.
Her uncle, Dave Dowling, was a three-sport letterman at W.F. West who went on to have a professional baseball career in the 1960s.
Laura’s parents moved from town to a home on Newaukum Hill, on Fineview Road, when she was about 10 or 12.
“The people before us were incredible gardeners,” Dowling said. The property had themed areas, including a Japanese garden, a one-acre rose garden, and rhododentrons ringing the property.
“I think it really developed my appreciation for flowers and beauty,” Dowling said. “That’s something I’ve taken with me.”
After graduating from W.F. West in 1977, she attended Centralia College (which named her its Distinguished Alumnus in 2013.)
She continued on to the University of Washington. She worked at the state Legislature while living in Centralia. Eventually she went to work in Washington, D.C., with a fellowship in the office of Sen. Slade Gorton. She had a long career in public policy strategy and communications.
Around the year 2000, she took a deeper dive into her lifelong love of flowers by studying the floral arts in Paris. She then started a part-time floral business out of her kitchen.
After the election of Barack Obama in 2008, there was an opening for White House florist. She applied for the job with a resume expressing the idea that flowers could be used as a strategic tool through “floral diplomacy.” After an eight-month interview process, including interviews by the three finalists with First Lady Michelle Obama, she won the job.
Since leaving the White House in 2015, she has written four books and gone on a speaker’s circuit.
She comes back to the Northwest periodically. Her mother, Mary Dowling, still lives in the area (Tenino), and a sibling lives in Westport.
As she looks back on her upbringing in Chehalis, she noted that the scholarship program at W.F. West High School helped her get started in life.
“Everyone who wanted to go on to college was able to qualify, which is just an amazing thing,” Dowling said. “Having the support of a family, of community, of growing up in a beautiful environment, of being inspired by nature — I often draw on that in my work. I think it comes back to a wonderful community of support and encouragement.”
Brian Mittge grew up, he just learned, less than a mile from Laura Dowling’s childhood home on Fineview Road. He still live just a few hills away. He can be reached at email@example.com.