By Patrick Springer and Mila Koumpilova, Forum staff writers, Published January 21 2009
Area inauguration attendees relish experienceIt was crowded, it was cold, and some didn’t make it to their coveted seats near the Capitol.
But North Dakotans and Minnesotans relished the camaraderie and sense of partaking in history Tuesday as Barack Obama became the 44th president.
Scenes from an inauguration:
Dan Hannaher brought a camera with him to record events as they unfolded at Obama’s inauguration.
But he also has a reel of striking mental images that he captured as he looked down Pennsylvania Avenue and saw the presidential motorcade approach the inaugural site.
Every direction he looked he saw a sea of humanity.
As the motorcade advanced, he could see – and hear – the enthusiastic crowd react as the new president passed by.
“Just the muffled reaction of the joy that you could hear across the city,” he said.
As he looked toward the towering Washington Monument, he saw thousands of people waving U.S. flags that had been passed out for the occasion.
After the speech, with its soaring rhetoric about national unity, sacrifice and perseverance, the import of the occasion was punctuated by the cannon roar of a 21-gun salute.
“It was one of those physical sensations,” Hannaher said. “The ground rumbled when they fired.”
Hannaher, a Fargo businessman who was Obama’s North Dakota campaign chairman, was thinking he might catch the end of the inaugural parade.
He considered walking to the lobby of the Willard Hotel, a historical landmark near the White House, and the residence of Abraham Lincoln when he served in Congress.
Just maybe he would catch a glimpse of two African-American children, Obama’s daughters, playing on the White House lawn.
That, he said, would be an image that will help change the country and how it pictures itself.
Close, yet so far
Jamie and Catie Garvey of Fargo had reserved tickets for the purple section, an area near the reflecting pool, that would give them their perch to watch Obama take the oath of office.
There was just one problem Tuesday morning: The line didn’t move past the security checkpoint, even as the band was about to start playing. Word circulated through the crowd that there was a problem with the metal detectors.
“There’s a large group of us that are stuck in Conrad’s office,” Jamie Garvey said, referring to Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., where dejected “purple people” decided to watch the ceremonies on television.
“Everyone’s kind of frustrated,” he said. “We’re watching it on TV just like everyone else.”
But Catie Garvey said it was still a thrill to be part of the Washington scene on Inauguration Day.
“I feel it’s just been fun to be here,” she said. “There’s a lot of energy and excitement.”
Another “purple” North Dakota couple also stayed positive in the face of the setback. Alex Reichert and his wife, Steph Blair, had endured a tightly packed metro ride and a four-hour wait in line when they found out they would experience the inauguration on the corner of Louisiana Avenue and First Street.
The Grand Forks couple and thousands of other on the wrong side of the barricades resolved to make the most of the situation.
A group nearby broke out in upbeat song every few minutes. “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” they would sing out, and the crowd promptly obliged. The gathering chanted “Yes, we can.” When Obama took the stage, a woman close to Reichert held up her cell phone and the hushed crowd listened to his address over the loudspeaker.
Afterwards, Reichert and Blair exchanged hugs with two female physicians from California, both the 60-something descendants of slaves, who kept apologizing for the tears streaming down their faces.
“It doesn’t matter that things didn’t go perfectly,” Reichert said. “We were there, and we were part of it.”
Obama on discount
The sheer immensity of the crowds – almost 2 million souls – is what struck Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker as he took his own place in the throng.
“It’s amazing how many people are here,” he said, undoubtedly grateful he didn’t have to worry about providing municipal services for the occasion. “The entire mall was full of people, standing room only.”
Long lines had already assembled when he arrived more than an hour before the gates opened, but all went smoothly in his section.
Walaker, who met Obama when he campaigned last year in Fargo, found the president’s inaugural speech stirring.
“I’m impressed, I really am,” he said. “He’s an intellect. I hope it unites the country, I really do. I hope it brings us all together.”
After the speeches, he went to a North Dakota luncheon at Conrad’ offices, where, among others, Walaker joined the president of North Dakota State University, Joe Chapman, and the University of North Dakota, Robert Kelley, and their wives.
“It was quite an experience,” Chapman said later. “Basically anywhere you looked, there were people, seas of people.”
After the inauguration events were over, Walaker noted that prices for Obama memorabilia hawked by street merchants were immediately marked down, by as much as 50 percent from their prices before the inaugural events.
Barack Obama, having just taken office, already has gone on sale.
The mayor bought a couple of Obama stocking caps for his grandkids.
Mood of the crowd
After a two-mile predawn walk through Washington, D.C., and spending just more than two hours in a bustling, rapidly growing line, Bismarck pediatrician Steve McDonough and his wife, Denise, had a prime spot to take in history.
The couple had tickets for the southwest standing area near the Capitol, with a somewhat obstructed view of inauguration proceedings.
“People were coming in in unbelievable numbers,” Steve McDonough said. “They were all very well-behaved, orderly – and excited.”
Looking back, he saw a sea of people of all ages and races: “There was a mass of humanity stretching from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and beyond. I’ve never seen so many people in one area in my life.”
The crowd exploded in cheers and applause when the new first family took the stage. Obama’s inaugural address brought another emotional outburst. The Bismarck couple, who were attending their first presidential inauguration, shared in the enthusiasm for the new president.
“He overcame some long odds to get here,” McDonough said. “He’s really an inspirational man.”
Yes, the crowds were large, the lines long, the event historic.
But people were remarkably friendly as they assembled Tuesday for the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, and the first African-American president.
That’s one thing Jamie Holding Eagle, one of 18 students from Minnesota State University Moorhead who traveled together to witness history, will remember about Tuesday’s inaugural ceremonies.
“It was really amazing how friendly people were,” the Fargo native said. “We talked to random people.”
Everywhere, it seemed, there was a connection. The security guard at the Rayburn House Office Building, for example, is a native of Valley City, N.D.
That’s where the North Dakota congressional delegation hosted North Dakotans who attended the inauguration. And it is where the MSUM group had its picture taken with Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
At the inauguration ceremonies, Holding Eagle was able to watch from an area near the reflecting pool, where the best view was on the giant television screen.
“It was really, really cold,” she said.
The group kept in touch with fellow students by posting to a blog and sending digital photos via e-mail.
Once home in Moorhead, when she will be greeted by her husband and two children, she’ll check news reports to catch details she missed.
It was the first trip to Washington for Holding Eagle, as it was for most in her group. “I didn’t know if we could pull off this trip,” she said. “I’m really glad we went for it.”
Going to the ball
Libby Schneider took her place among statues, statuesque trees and a throng of a million or more as she watched Obama take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural address on Tuesday.
“We heard everything,” she said. “The speaker system was really good. Just being there and witnessing history – you could feel it in the air.”
But it was the content of the speech that stood out for the Fargo native, who recently moved to Washington in the hope of landing a job on Capitol Hill.
Schneider was impressed that Obama vowed to uphold American values while also striving to keep the nation safe, a balance she finds reassuring.
“We can have both and do both,” she said.
Schneider planned to watch the inaugural parade on television at a friend’s apartment – while she prepared for Tuesday night’s Obama Youth Ball, which she had a ticket to attend.
She planned to wear a favorite black dress for the occasion, and wanted to look her best. That meant rearranging her hair after witnessing the windswept inaugural ceremonies.
“I don’t think I’m in ball shape,” she said as she excused herself to prepare for her date with history.
Readers can reach Forum reporters Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522 and Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529 Reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this report