Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

TOP STORY>>Arkansans celebrate in Washington

By JOHN HOFHEIMER AND CHRISTY HENDRICKS
Leader staff writers

When President Barack Obama, an African American of humble origins, took the oath of office as 44th president of the United States on Tuesday, 11 Jacksonville High School students, two chaperones, a teacher and Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien were among the two million or so people who braved the Washington cold to witness history.

O’Brien, a Jacksonville resident, was perhaps the first elected official in Arkansas to endorse Obama’s candidacy, back when he was a footnote candidate.

“My realization just happened a lot earlier than other people,” O’Brien said by phone Tuesday afternoon. “It was like I knew a secret that no one else knew, although they could have if they wanted to.”

“I had a chair 100 yards away (from the lectern),” he said. “I had a great view.”

O’Brien said he had always promised himself that if he found a candidate who inspired people the way the late Bobby Kennedy did, that he would support him.

O’Brien confirmed that he would probably announce his candidacy for Arkansas Secretary of State at the end of the 87th General Assembly. Charlie Daniel, the current occupant of the office, can’t run again because of term limits, O’Brien said.

“Oh my gosh,” said Lori Lachowsky, the Jacksonville High School advanced placement government teacher who took some class members to the inauguration. “Think big! Expand it by ten million times. It was beyond anything I could imagine.”

The students were cold, hungry and tired, but moved by their experiences.

“I thought it was pretty amazing,” said Cody Castile, a senior who voted for Obama in his first presidential election. “He gave a great speech and since I voted I had a little to do with his election. He was really great, smart and impressive.

“Everybody kind of came together. That says a lot about our country, people of all races coming together to elect someone like him.”

Brittany Rodgers said she was excited to have been there, heard his speech and to have seen the ex-presidents.

They were about 200 yards from the dais, and watched on a large-screen TV in the VIP section, Lachowsky said. They got up at 4:30 a.m. and stood in endless lines to get to their spots.

She said she was really proud of the maturity of the students who made the trip.

“This was a phenomenon,” Lachowsky said. “It’s such an historical moment for a county that is looking for hope and ready to change. It’s an era of change.”

Wednesday they will visit the National Archives, the Iwo Jima memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial and Union Station before flying home.

People watching the inauguration at the Jacksonville Senior Center had their own take on the moment in history.

“I met him four years ago, when he was a senator, and shook hands with him,” said William Hunter, a Chicago native, while he was watching the inauguration. “I never thought he’d be president.” Hunter spoke these words with a sense of pride.

He sat at a round table with Robert Cain and Eulalie Frank Tuesday morning at the center, patiently waiting for the historical moment when Obama became President.
Many area seniors gathered at the center to watch that moment, playing inaugural trivia and word find games as they waited.

A large screen television sat at the front of the room, tuned into the events at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

When Rev. Rick Warren took the stage to pray, heads bowed. When Aretha Franklin sang “My Country Tis of Thee,” there were nods and words of approval. When Vice President Joe Biden was sworn in, there was clapping. And when Obama took stage, there were cheers for the nation’s 44th and first African-American president.

“I feel good, elated,” said Grace Kelly. “I’m highly elated and thankful.”

Kelly sat with Ceola Crump, Yester Watson, Georgia Thomas, Louise Ford, Alma Bell, Clarice Roy and Annie bonds, all of who seemed very happy to see this day.

The table of ladies gave the loudest cheers in the room.

There was even one attendee who has seen 100-years of history, Esther Cox.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” said Cox, who will celebrate her 101st birthday in just a couple months. “It’s a treat for all of us.”