Thursday January 22, 2009

History in Person

Some awed, some speechless and some brought to tears, UD alumni, students, staff and faculty share their stories from the inauguration of President Obama Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C.

"It was truly a surreal moment. A true moment in American history."

Before the sun rose on a crisp yet frigid January morning, Meg Thatcher '05, a high school mathematics teacher from Bethesda, Md., and University of Dayton alumni friends began hiking a four-and-a-half mile journey into the pages of history. Normally, it's a 15-minute, six-block walk from her Washington, D.C., home to Capitol Hill.

"It kept our body temperatures up," she joked later. "For me, it was a moment to reflect on the numerous marches that men and women, black and white, took over the years for the cause of civil rights.

As Thatcher joined an estimated record 1.8 million people watch Barack Obama take the oath of office as the nation's first African-American president, the enormity of the moment hit her.

"We were something bigger than ourselves," she said. "The silence was deafening. Every face was glued to the screen. He spoke so eloquently about our economy, the need for change and, more importantly, our individual role in it. The emotion for some was so overwhelming, they were brought to tears," she said.

During the solemn silence, graduate student Brian Wafzig "turned around and took pictures of people's faces. It was almost like they were looking up in awe," he said.

Other alumni, staff and students who braved the crowds and cold to witness history echoed similar emotions. The crowd — stretching from the Capitol lawn to beyond the Washington Monument- was "so excited and almost punch drunk," observed Kate Dignan '02, central regional manager in Cincinnati for "Making it Count," a national program that helps high school students transition to college and careers. "His speech hit all the right notes and really embodied the reasons why I voted for him — a desire for acceptance of all, a want to better our country and its standing in the eyes of the world and a call to service for all to answer."

First-year students Courtney Regensburger of Cincinnati and Vincent Reese of Jackson, Ohio, watched the ceremony on Washington's National Mall as participants in the University Presidential Inaugural Conference. "Everyone was pumped, singing, dancing, throwing their hands up and shouting," said Regensburger in the hours leading up to the swearing-in ceremony.

Three former Student Government Association presidents found themselves in the middle of the hoopla. Kara Stencel '02, legislative aide to Representative F. Allen Boyd Jr. from Florida's second district, helped organize Kentucky's inaugural Bluegrass Ball and attended the inauguration with her sisters. Rodell Mollineau '99, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, stayed in the office and responded to reporters as the Senate delayed a vote on Senator Hillary Clinton's nomination as secretary of state. J.P. McIntyre '91, who drove from Greensboro, N.C., left his car in Virginia and walked across Memorial Bridge.

"When I walked past the Lincoln Memorial and climbed that little hill, the sight was incredible. It was a sea of humanity," said McIntyre, a plant manager for Parker Hannifin Corp. and former Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania, West Africa.

Eric Timar '90, who does affordable housing work for Arlington County, Va., also walked from Virginia — with young children in tow. "We're glad we went and that our 8-year-old, Estelle, and 5-year-old, Liam, got to see a peaceful transition of power and an African-American family entering the White House," he said.

Mike Rizer '82, an executive vice president at Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., wanted his teenage daughters, too, to embrace that moment. They served breakfast to the homeless at a soup kitchen at St. Matthew Cathedral in downtown Washington, attended the North Carolina inaugural ball and watched the parade from the Financial Services Roundtable offices on Pennsylvania Avenue. "The energy and hope here have been palpable," he said.

Kathleen Henderson, director of first-year student engagement, drove to D.C. in an RV with family members because "I wouldn't have missed it for the world." At one point, a group of Kenyans in the crowd broke into a spontaneous dance. "Everyone's spirits were so high. You always wanted to believe it (the election of an African-American) could happen, but I never expected it so soon. I'm really, really proud of my country. My nephews will always know that anything is possible."

Lynnette Heard watched a flock of white birds "flying and sort of dancing in the air overhead" as Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman performed "Air and Simple Gifts" before Obama took the oath. "I looked up and lost it. We were overwhelmed with emotion, a sense of disbelief, joy and elation," said Heard, executive director of the president's office. "It was very spiritual for me. A collection of ordinary communities of people of every hue and age and every possible dream in this nation learned to believe this could happen."

Despite catching a cold, Yolanda Copeland, who attended a segregated school in Arkansas as a child, said she wouldn't have traded the experience for the world: "I just wanted to be around all the people," said Copeland, an administrative assistant in the provost's office. "I really didn't believe that Americans could move beyond race, even when all the evidence showed that America needed to move in a different direction."

One of two 1989 African-American graduates from the School of Law who now works as a bureau chief at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, Lemuel Harrison believes "the country has turned a corner." Standing among an animated, energetic group on the National Mall, he noted, "We were cold but oblivious to the time. We were going to be part of the moment. It was very, very rewarding."

As darkness descended, Kevin Monahan '00, Brian Marchal '01 John Megyimori '01, humorist and "embedded reporter" Dave Barry and 50-some members of the World Famous Lawn Rangers from Amazing Arcola, Ill., finally appeared before the reviewing stand in front of the White House where the presidential party watched the inaugural parade. They were dressed in T-shirts, suspenders, cowboy hats, Lone Ranger masks and red graduation gowns — what Barry called "a cross between a yard sale and a fraternity initiation" — and executed precision lawn mower maneuvers in front of the president. These aren't normal lawn mowers. They're show mowers, elaborately decorated with such nonsensical stuff as a large stuffed beaver and a beer keg.

"He was definitely laughing," said a very tired Monahan afterward. "It was worth it."

For more information, contact Shawn Robinson, associate director of media relations, at 937-229-3391 or srobinson@udayton.edu.