A widower dresses up the house — inside and out — in its holiday finest as a tribute to his late wife.
Story by Denise Alden | Photography by Matt Kocourek
Jack McMillen, a proud, retired Missouri highway patrolman, has a soft spot for the holiday season.
Since his wife of 26 years died of breast cancer in 1999, he has honored her memory through holiday decorating.
“It’s an annual tradition of mine,” he says. “My wife loved Christmas, so I do this as a tribute to her. Some men hunt or fix up cars as a hobby, the holidays are my hobby.”
He was never the stereotypical male who didn’t have a clue about design. Jack had been building houses as a side hustle since 1970, and after retiring from the road, started his own full-time construction businesses.
Needing a new environment for himself and his son to start over, Jack drew up some initial house plans for colleague and friend Bill Preloger of NSPJ Architects to complete.
“Their residential design is excellent,” Jack compliments. “I’m forever grateful to Bill for my home.”
Jack found a subdivision in Platte County to build a custom residence on a 3/4-acre lot.
During the growing season, he mows 10-12 acres each week. “I’m living at the edge of nature; I’ve got to keep the varmints down,” he explains.
Once the mower is put away for the season, Jack transitions to holiday preparations, starting with tree selection. Long before the Thanksgiving turkey is set on the table, Jack is already underway making plans for the Christmas tree’s arrival.
First, he drives to Wisconsin to buy select cuts of Fraser firs. He makes this road trip for a specific reason: “Whereas most Christmas tree farmers cut in September, Wisconsin farmers cut right at Thanksgiving, which is why they last longer than a couple of weeks.”
Friends and family have caught on to the quality and freshness of this tactic and ask him to bring a tree back for them, too.
“It started off with me getting one tree for myself, and now I bring a whole trailer load home,” Jack says with a laugh.
He stores his tree outside for a week and uses a spray hose to keep it moist. Once he brings it inside, he keeps the house’s thermostat down to extend the life of the tree. With these techniques, a cut tree can last about three weeks without losing too many needles.
By early December, the 18-foot beast makes its way into the hearth room — thanks to the aid of strong, helpful fellows in the construction industry.
“It takes three people to get the tree in the house and set up,” Jack notes.
Then Jack sets to work wrapping 4,000 bulbs of colorful lights over the course of four days.
“It’s a lot of hard work winding all through the branches,” he emphasizes.
A second tree — an artificial flocked variety he purchased at Family Tree Nursery — stays on the balcony overlooking the entry.
“There’s too much heat going upstairs that a real one would dry out,” he adds.
Even before either of these trees is decorated, however, others on the property are already lit.
“Depending on the weather, I try to do a couple of trees outside in October,” Jack says.
Three blue spruces at the front of the house are about 45 feet tall. To reach the top, he employs long poles and some more friends to help.
The house exterior gets its lights not long after that. Jack hangs 1,000 bulbs on the front and the back of the house. That process takes another week.
Recently, he switched to LEDs to save money on electricity.
“I had to wait it out until the LEDs got better, more like incandescents,” he says. “Now my bill doesn’t go up like it used to.”
After the largest projects are done, Jack pulls out the boxes of ornaments and collectibles that he displays around the house. One of the most prominent places is the dining room.
Jack’s hired interior designer, Mick Preloger, had chosen to paint the ceiling pink, a decision Jack didn’t understand at first.
“The pink ceiling took me by surprise, but it really casts a nice warm glow when you’re eating in there,” he admits.
It’s also a perfect backdrop at Christmastime. On the buffet, a snowy village spreads out on bed of wavy cotton.
Jack began to pick up the Radko collectibles at Marshall Fields in Chicago on his way up north. He has a knack for placing them in scenes.
“I really just look at ideas in magazines and try to duplicate them,” he says.
Modest though he may be, he’s quite thorough and detailed, not missing opportunities to decorate the other surfaces, such as hanging ornaments from the sconces and chandelier, and in the entry hall.
He’s actually had a lot of years of practice, going back to childhood. Growing up in El Dorado, Kan., in the 1950s and ’60s, Jack recalls his dad putting up Christmas lights every year.
“He made it a big deal with me, and I just picked it up,” Jack says.
Now Jack’s son is the next generation to connect with his father through this special season.
His son, who works in Washington D.C., comes home two or three times a year and sometimes brings friends, too.
“He checks on dad and sees what I’m doing,” says Jack, who’s in his mid-70s.
The home is usually filled with friends and neighbors during the holidays, who enjoy looking at the house in all its splendor.
Jack says that has toned down in recent years, but not much is likely to stop his holiday extravaganza.
“People ask me when I’m going to downsize, but I’m not going to give this up to go live in some apartment,” he says. “The only other thing I’d like is to live in a log cabin somewhere, but I’m not ready for that. I have never regretted living here, and decorating for the holidays is something I look forward to every year. As long as my health is good, I’ll keep going.”