Obama Inauguration '09: Residents who were there share their thoughts

January 21, 2009 

Time was running out, and with their inauguration tickets unusable after the gate to their entrance was slammed shut because of an overflow crowd, Balvino Irizarry and his wife, Kathleen, had to think fast.

With no good viewing opportunities as they walked, they slipped into the Dirksen Senate Office Building, which is behind the Capitol and is home to senators and members of various committees.

“It was a move of desperation,” said Balvino Irizarry, president of the Hispanic Leadership Council for Stanislaus County. “We saw a building with a door. We asked security if we could enter, and they said we could go right in.”

Once inside, they were allowed into an office to watch it with employees there. In fact, there were TVs on throughout the warm building.

“Every time Obama came up to speak, you heard a big roar throughout the offices,” Irizarry said. “There were a lot of good feelings and camaraderie.

“Although we were a little disappointed we didn’t get to stand there in the cold, we were able to watch from the comforts of a nice, warm office.”

He said while waiting outside for hours, he noticed things getting out of hand, between what he saw at his gate, and an ambulance stuck in the mass of humanity.

“When we were watching it on TV, there was a feeling of relief,” he said.

In fact, about an hour before the inauguration began, he doubted they'd get in.

“You would not believe this,” he told a reporter before the inauguration. “We’re boxed in on a corner. We’re about a quarter-mile from the security check and there are over a mile of people on both sides. The entire streets are filled.

“Everyone is at a standstill. It’s like Graffitti night in Modesto when the cars are at a standstill.”

After the ceremony, as he walked out of the Dirksen building, he received a call from her sister, Annette Irizarry of Modesto, to say she was excited for them that they got to witness history.

Then, it was on to the offices of Merced Congressman Dennis Cardoza, to talk with a number of people from the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

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With impending human gridlock, Modesto’s Wendy Byrd was concerned she’d have a tough time getting into Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day.

She was staying in Baltimore, and there were just too many variables in that 40-mile trip on a day that meant so much to her.

So, she took up an offer from a local church, and spent the night on a pew with a few others at the Imani Temple African-American Catholic Congregation, which is near Capitol Hill.

“I was afraid I couldn’t get in, and the church put out the welcome mat and offered,” she said. “It was the first time I’ve ever slept on a pew. I actually slept well. It was very warm and comforting.”

The church was about six blocks from the entrance to where her tickets would put her, and it made for a perfect day.

“That was a humbling experience to me and reflective of what a church should be about and how enthusiastic people are in supporting our new president,” she said. “There was a lot of warmth and laughter.”

She went to the inauguration with her sister from Toledo, Ohio. Her aunt from Pennsylvania was there, too, but it was too cold for her to go, and she stayed at the church and watched on a big-screen TV. Byrd had plans last year to take her mom, but she died in September.

“She definitely would have been here,” she said.

Byrd, a big Obama supporter, said the new president delivered in his speech.

“I thought his speech, as usual, was inspiring and direct,” she said. “He has a very charismatic way of reiterating the change and hope the people are hungry for.

“It’s a good day to be an American.”

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Minutes before Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation's 44th president, John Ervin and his wife, Lezzette, were all but resigned to watching and listening from outside of their ticketed area.

They had waited in staggering lines for hours holding their purple tickets, which would put them near the reflecting pool within ear and eye-shot of Barack Obama.

“They shut the gates on us,” Ervin said. “We were very disappointed.”

They wondered whether they should just leave, and try to get a vantage point with those who didn’t have tickets. They waited about 20 minutes, and began walking away, when an officer began yelling, “Purple tickets. Purple tickets.”

There was a cheer in the crowd, with people waving their tickets in the air, and they both turned around and started heading back. There was a slight rush to the gate, but the Ervins got through security (“we were like penguins”), and into their designated area just as pastor Rick Warren delivered the invocation.

“It was a sight to see,” he said.

He said they had a perfect vantage point from which to watch and listen to the nation’s first African-American president. Ervin, who is black, said “I actually got a chill over my body.”

“I kept saying, ‘Is this really happening?’” he asked his wife. “I’m still trying to wake up from this dream.”

He was especially moved by Obama’s speech and the call to helping the youth and veterans.

Ervin is founder of Project Uplift, a mentorship program that provides guidance to black youths in the Modesto area.

“I’m ready to get down further in the trenches and dig deeper and wider to help turn around our youth,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us to make this country the great nation it’s capable of being and getting it back to where it once was. All is not lost."

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In the crush of the crowd, Brent Bohlender got separated from his son, Brian, early Tuesday morning, and wasn’t able to share in the moment.

“That was kind of sad,” Bohlender said after the ceremoney. “We both wanted to share that moment. ... I’m looking forwrd to hearing his comments. He was a big Obama fan.”

That was a small hitch to what turned out to be a fabulous morning for the Johansen High history teacher, who led a group of students to Washington, D.C.

“I have never experienced anything so filled with so much hope,” he wrote in an e-mail minutes after the ceremony. “Whenever Barack Obama or Joe Biden appeared, the crowd went wild. When the Bushes appeared, there were very little cheers. It’s very odd with a crowd so large to be responding the same way.”

The group left their hotel at 5 a.m., and were on the National Mall by 6:30. Some went ahead, and others got split up. The plan was to meet afterward near the National Air and Space Museum at 6:30 p.m.

“Basically, everyone just followed the crowd until the mall filled up,” Johansen student Brooke Blythe said. “We’re packed between a lot of people.”

She was with a few other students, including Bohlender’s son, across from the Smithsonian Institute headquarters, about halfway between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument.

Brent Bohlender was staked out a little further back by the Natural History Museum. He enjoyed people-watching and listening and participating in conversations — and offering a little history lesson or two — with people around him.

“I’m just glad I did it,” he said. “Nothing like this will happen again in my lifetime.”

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Thanks to her sister and a senator from Colorado, Turlock’s Cathy Fitzpatrick found herself immersed in history on Tuesday.

Her sister, who lives in Colorado, got tickets to the inauguration from Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado.

“It was really special being part of that crowd,” said Fitzpatrick, a junior high school teacher in Ceres. “You just got choked up watching it. Looking at all the people. I thought the speech was good. Brutal at the beginning, and then full of hope.”

She said the trip was about as smooth as can be.

On Monday, despite stories of people having to wait in long lines to pick up their tickets, Fitzpatrick’s wait was only 30 minutes. That allowed she and her sister hours to walk around The National Mall amid thousands of people.

“It was so amazing that there were a couple of million people, and we were all doing the same thing,” she said. “Everyone was so nice and happy.”

She said the only wait was on Monday in the Metro. Once their train arrived, it took them 10 minutes just to get off the train, and another hour before they got out the station. It was just one giant mass of people.

But even that was fun.

“You’d just stop, ask where people were from, how they got there and where they stayed last night,” she said.

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Christopher Beach wasn’t alive during that certain free-love music concert in upstate New York 40 years.

But he’s read about it in history class, and he’s talked to adults who know all about it. And that’s why he looked upon today’s inauguration as another big cultural moment.

“This event will be remembered as the Woodstock of my generation,” said the Davis High School senior. “People who were here are going to always remember it. Forty or 50 years from now, people are going to ask what it was like to be there when the first African-American president was sworn-in.

“There was a moment of excitement from the time we got there to the time we left.”

That Beach, along with his five classmates, were there was tied directly to the efforts of his world history teacher, Chuck Jostad.

Along with two classmates, Beach was about halfway between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. His classmates, along with Jostad, were a little further back.

He said he had a pretty good sight-line, and with the help of the jumbotron, he could look back on the stage and tell who was who. With all the people in front and behind, he felt like he was becoming part of history.

“It was like reliving some of the Civil Rights videos we’re shown in history class,” Beach said. “People were chanting, but it was very peaceful. It was all part of a movement, a movement of social change."

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Greg Olzack, the former Atwater mayor and city council member, said the mood couldn’t have been more joyous.

“The speech was great, everyone was excited and there was such a good air of diplopmacy,” said the close friend to Merced Congressman Dennis Cardoza.

Olzack spent the night at Cardoza’s home, and had a smooth ride into town.

He did see some stars in the crowd seated near him, including actors Susan Sarandon and Timothy Robbins, and boxer Evander Holyfield.

He was still near his seat afterward when a helicopter carrying former President Bush flew overhead.

On Tuesday night, he headed to the Western States Inaugural Ball, where singer Mark Anthony performed in the big ballroom before hundreds of guests. A few minutes later, his wife, Jennifer Lopez, showed up.

Afterward, Joe Biden and his wife came, and gave a little speech. Barack Obama and his wife were expected, but as the minutes ticked away, there was some doubt.

"We were waiting, waiting, waiting ... then thought about taking off," Olzack said. "Then he showed up."

He didn't disappoint, although the stay lasted less than 10 minutes.

"He came in and thanked everyone first," Olzack said. "He talked about how he has a plan and we're all part of it.

"Then he said, 'Now, I'm going to dance with the girl that brung me. She does everything I do, but in high heals.' Then, they danced, and then they had to leave."

•  •  •

Beyer High School graduate Zachary Priest made sure he’d get to The Mall early.

With basically zero sleep, he got out to his spot in the mall standing area near the reflecting pool and waited for about seven hours before the event got under way.

“People were just making jokes, putting their cameras over their heads and shooting behind to see the crowd,” he said. “It was very cold so people were huddling up.”

Priest, who attends Columbia College, received an invitation as an alum of the National Youth Leadership Forum.

He said the crowd was pretty mellow. He could hear a lot of cheering from behind. Cheers for Obamas and boos for former President George Bush, and even Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

He said he loved Obama’s speech, but the only problem was by the time that came around, he had wished he had more energy to really enjoy it.

By the afternoon, he was back at his hotel, and ready to go to a ball at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

•  •  •

Tommie Muhammad, former director of Modesto’s King-Kennedy Memorial Center, felt the inauguration was a great teaching moment for millions. And for his family.

Back for the inauguration, he has the fortune of having a lot of family members back there, including two daughters, six grandchildren and two nieces, who all were able to attend on Tuesday.

He said he spent the weekend preparing both himself and his family — “there was a lot of teaching” — for the big day. His family in Stockton, as well as his son, a student at Norfolk State University in Virginia, all made sure to tune in.

“I told my son that his generation would produce the first African-American president,” Muhammad said. “I just didn’t think it would be this quick and that I would get an opportunity to witness and be part of it.”

Muhammad spoke with emotion during a short phone call after the inauguration, when he spent some time at Merced Congressman Dennis Cardoza’s office, and was getting ready to head out to the National Mall to soak it all up.

“Being a part of the movement of the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement, the transition into the Black Power movement ... the whole journey has been a great experience,” he said.

Barack Obama’s books and speeches won Muhammad over. He says Obama’s speech on race won the nation over.

“From that point on, I thought we were going to win,” he said.

Muhammad said he knows the ills of the country aren’t going to go away overnight. But, the nation got a little closer on Tuesday.

“We all love this country called American,” he said, “and want it to be the best it can be and a reflection of what God wants it to reflect.”

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With local residents back in Washington, D.C., we thought it would be cool to see where they're going to be on today.

Take a look at the map below. Each icon represents one of the numerous local residents we were able to catch up with before their departure, and upon their arrival last weekend in Washington.

Their place on the map is where they're expected to be this morning, although there are some without tickets who we'll catch up with prior to the start of the ceremonies.

By clicking on the icons, you can pull up their stories to learn more about them.


View Larger Map

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