Neither the gray sky nor the constant drizzle seemed to bother 10-year-old Nicole Bartch yesterday morning as she skipped up the white stone steps to the entrance of the governor's mansion in Annapolis.

It's not everyday that a fifth-grader is given a personal tour by Hilda Mae Snoops, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's longtime companion.

Nicole owed her visit to a 3-foot puppet dressed in a blue jacket, yellow shirt and black wig -- her own creation -- and a cassette tape of Christmas carols song by her classmates.

"I feel special," Nicole said with a broad smile. "It's like my big chance. I made (the puppet) look like Cathy in the comic strips."

Nicole and 173 other fourth-and fifth-graders from High Point Elementary in Pasadena were invited after Snoops saw their artwork on display at Severna Park Mall last spring. She immediately contacted the school and made arrangements for a display at the mansion and the tour.

"Sometimes you see something that captures your imagination," Snoops said.

The 12 lifelike papier-mache puppets, dressed in costumes and clothes outgrown by students, are on display in the mansion's conservatory, surrounded by poinsettias and other Christmas decorations. The soft, melodious sound of the fifth-graders' Christmas carols can be heard throughout the room, almost as if coming from the puppets.

The display runs through Dec. 21. "I promised them that they would be able to have them at home for Christmas," Snoops said.

But that does not mean the student creations won't have a lot of exposure. Parents and everyone else will be able to see the display during the annual Christmas open house scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.

The fifth-graders worked on the project last year with art teacher Frances Neat, who was awarded a Salute of Excellence certificate by Snoops during the tour yesterday. Each student who took part in the project will receive a certificate as well.

Yesterday, after Polaroid photos had been taken and students took another long, hard look at their work, they gathered in the mansion's front foyer beneath a towering Christmas tree. Snoops stood on steps leading to the private chambers, answering questions and sharing information about the mansion.

Students quizzed Snoops about use of the mansion's first level as a barracks and office space for more details about the four-story building.

One student asked, "Where's the governor?"

Snoops quickly apologized for his absence, but told students he also was impressed with their work.

"The governor is in St. Mary's County for an archaeological dig," Snoops said. "They found some interesting specimens and he is learning more about Maryland's history. He is disappointed he could not be here."

Fourth-grader Dustin Baughman sent his own message to Schaefer.

"Tell the governor Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year," Dustin said from the back of the crowd. "And thank you for inviting us."

Almost as quickly as the students formed lines to enter, they gathered their coats and waved goodbye. Fifth-grader Sean Brescia looked back at the room where his Karate Kid puppet remains.

"It's exciting," Sean said. "I just thought it would be an art project.

I was surprised, I never thought it would end up here."

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