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The Elephant in the Room

By Lisa Asher
It’s that time of year again. No, I don’t mean the season of joy and giving–I mean the office Christmas party. A time-honored tradition in office buildings large and small, the staff Christmas party is a chance for people to wrap up any old thing they have lying around the house and call it a “white elephant gift.” It’s a chance for people who see each other every day of the week to. . . see each other again in the evening.

Don’t get me wrong–I truly enjoy the people I work with at the Baylor Alumni Association (BAA). They are smart, funny, and committed to the goal of the association, which is to support Baylor University through independent programs and publications.

I have been with the BAA for twelve years, and during that time we’ve experienced a lot of changes–and I mean a lot. In a way, I can chart our progression over this last decade by thinking back to my first Christmas at the association.

In 1996, the BAA’s offices were located in Clifton Robinson Tower while we awaited the renovation of the Hughes-Dillard Alumni Center. I had only been with the association for a couple of months, so I was still getting to know everyone. Jeff Kilgore, who is now the BAA’s executive vice president and CEO, was at that time fairly new to the association himself. He worked under Dr. Ray Burchette, the BAA’s chief in 1996, to create new programs and chapters.

At the appointed hour, staff members gathered in the back room of the office suite, clutching brightly wrapped gift bags and tasty treats. The “Line Ladies”–including me; Paula Tanner, then-editor of the Baylor Line; Meg Cullar, the magazine’s news editor; and Judy Prather, the Class Notes editor–composed and performed a medley of Christmas songs.

Okay, we’d actually just changed the words of familiar carols, but the reaction was so positive (at least in our minds) that our song writing soon got a little out of hand. Even all these years later, we still write songs for birthdays, anniversaries, new hires, and just about every other occasion you can think of. We think we’re pretty great, but, then, we’re biased!

The songs sung and food eaten, we proceeded to draw numbers and start the “white elephant” gift exchange. As in many offices, I imagine, our gifts were more of the joke variety, with offerings ranging from a wreath made of black trash bags to a coffee cup that became known as the “baby butt mug.”

I had drawn the second-to-last number, so I knew my gift would be pretty bad. But as the selection dwindled, one beautifully wrapped package remained under the tree, so I grabbed it. As I unwrapped the small box, staff members crowded around, giggling and whispering. I began to realize that there was a joke I wasn’t in on, but by then it was too late. So imagine my relief when I pulled back the tissue paper to reveal a generous gift certificate to Victoria’s Secret.

Immediately, everyone started hooting and pummeling Jeff, who put his arm around me and thanked me for trusting him. “Um, you’re welcome?” I replied. It was only later that I found out what all the fuss was about.

The year before, Jeff had brought in a similarly wrapped package, which contained not a gift certificate, but a bloody deer hoof, a relic of a past hunting trip. Of course, no one was willing to trust him again, something he counted on when he decided to defy expectations and buy a nice gift–one that wasn’t dripping.

That was twelve years ago, and it truly was a more innocent time. In 1998, we moved to our refurbished building, but minus Jeff Kilgore, who moved across University Parks Drive to become the university host. By the time he returned to us in 2004, we had lost most of our staff members and our funding. We’d lost that carefree spirit too, but we’d gained a renewed sense of commitment to serving Baylor and its alumni.

Jeff is still a practical joker, but his purpose is much more serious and our schedules don’t allow for quite as much fun as they used to. So our annual White Elephant Christmas party gives us a chance to catch our breath, appreciate each other, and remember why it is we work where we do.

I truly trust Jeff now–but do I trust him enough to choose his white elephant gift this year? It depends on whether the package is leaking!

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