They Came From Afar and Braved the Wintry Day

Posted January 20, 2009 at 6:39pm

The sun was out Tuesday morning, but that’s about all that inauguration attendees had going for them weather-wise as they headed to the National Mall. A chilly breeze kept the throngs of people wrapped up in coats, blankets and Barack Obama paraphernalia as they pushed their way toward the parade route and the entrance to the Mall as early as 6 a.m.

Most people seemed to have prepared for the cold weather and the long wait, coming equipped with extra outerwear, sandwiches and other snacks for the long camp-out before the inauguration actually began. For those who didn’t pack adequately, however, there was no end of vendors hawking not only commemorative T-shirts, pins, posters and flags, but hand and foot warmers as well.

There was a sense of camaraderie among the crowds as they made their way through the Third Street tunnel and down parts of Independence Avenue. Chants of “Obama” echoed through the tunnel, and earlier in the morning some spontaneously broke into song with “This Little Light of Mine.” The chummy feeling was fostered in part by inauguration workers handing out Obama-fied nametags.

“Talk to someone you wouldn’t normally talk to,” one shouted. “It’s the Obama way! Tell people why you came.”

Plenty of Obama garb could be spotted in the sea of people, ranging from T-shirts and hats to stickers and pins emblazoned with “I Voted Change” and “Yes We Did.” Some donned pageant-style “Africans for Obama” sashes.

Enthusiastic spectators hailed from all over the country, and some even came in from other countries for what many considered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness history. For the most committed in the crowd, nothing would deter them — not even overpriced flights.

The Hopkins-Doyle family, originally from Dublin, planned their first visit to the United States specifically for the occasion. When they couldn’t get hotel reservations in Washington, they rerouted to New York, but they booked flights from there to D.C. so they could spend the day celebrating where the action was.

“The flights from New York to D.C. were more expensive than the ones from Dublin to New York,” said Cepta Hopkins, who was traveling with her husband, Fergus Doyle, and their two children. But the pricey flights were worth it to the family, who didn’t want to miss the beginning of what they hope will be a positive new era in the world.

“We feel that he will make change to the whole world, and not just to America,” Hopkins said.

“It’s maybe not possible for people to understand the fear in Europe during Bush’s presidency,” Doyle said. “There was a lot of fear about Bush, or really, more Cheney than Bush.”

The family, who carried an Irish flag as they waited for the ceremony to begin, pointed out Obama’s Irish roots — the new president’s great-great-great-grandfather was from County Offaly, according to Doyle.

Others on the Mall may not have made an overseas trip to be there, but many traveled quite a distance to take part.

Jennifer Stephens and her 10-year-old son Zechariah traveled to D.C. from Connecticut to celebrate the boy’s Jan. 21 birthday by watching Obama take office. Like the Hopkins-Doyle family, the Stephenses had trouble finding accommodations, so they spent Monday night in Delaware and took an early bus trip to Washington on inauguration morning.

Why go to the trouble?

“This is a historic event,” said Stephens, who carried a flag from her native Jamaica and wore Jamaica and Obama pins on her hat. “I just couldn’t stay home and watch it.”

Her son seemed to share his mother’s enthusiasm for the new president. “A lot of kids look up to him because they have dreams, right?” he said. “So when a black man becomes president, we see” that can happen.

Edward York and his wife, Liz Hagel, came from San Francisco just for the inauguration, and they happily unraveled a homemade sign that read “San Francisco congratulates President Obama.”

The couple had worked on the campaign, so they naturally wanted to witness the end result of their work, but they said they also wanted to be there to bid former President George W. Bush farewell.

Hager said she looks forward to “the return of dignity” under Obama, and she said, “we’re here to wish Bush bye-bye.” Her husband referred to the eight years of the Bush administration as “a national depression.”

Dressed in a stars-and-stripes top hat, York said he became an Obama supporter after reading “The Audacity of Hope,” saying the new president “is the most interesting person to ever run [for the office].” The couple said they felt they simply had to be in Washington to witness the transition.

“This is the American living room today,” York said. “This is the most diverse place in the country right now and we wanted to be a part of that.”

Not far from where the San Francisco couple stood watching a replay of the “We Are One” concert on a jumbotron, a group of high school students from Brooklyn huddled together to keep off the chill as they waited for the big moment.

The group was from the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School and was made up of juniors and seniors in civics and U.S. history courses, as well as a select number of sophomores who had been nominated by their teachers.

Charlenny Vallejo was one of those sophomores. This was her first trip to Washington, and she said being here for the inauguration was “something special.”

“I never imagined this for me, being here,” she said.

Nate Dudley, who organized the trip with teacher Susie House, was no stranger to Washington, having worked as a lobbyist during the Reagan administration. Being here as a principal, though, he hoped the students would leave with “the understanding that they are the change, they will be the change.”

House seemed to think they had gotten the message. “They really feel moved, and feel inspired that this day goes beyond this date,” she said. “They feel the call to action, the call to service.”

The Harbor School students weren’t the only New Yorkers who made the journey from the Big Apple to the District. Carlos Reyes and eight other family members piled into an RV and made the trip down from the Bronx. Reyes watched the concert performances with his 8-year-old son, Nicholas, as both held multiple American flags.

As an immigrant, Reyes said, Obama’s election gave hope that maybe someday Hispanics could run for the highest office in the land, and the moment was something he couldn’t miss. “There’s no way you could stay in New York and watch it from the sidelines,” he said. “You had to be here.”

Not content to simply talk about hope for a different America, one group decided to in fact be the “winds of change,” donning red, white and blue pinwheels on top of their hats.

One of the “winds,” Gary Leabman, was originally a Hillary Rodham Clinton fan before jumping on the Obama train and volunteering for his campaign.

“He just started making more and more sense,” he said. “He really is a leader for our time.”

Leabman was in town from Hermann, Mo., and was staying with his cousin, Beverly Nyberg, who works for the State Department.

Despite the oft-repeated diatribes against the former president, Nyberg acknowledged that Bush worked hard on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. “We’re hoping that Barack will continue that and there will be a strong emphasis on caring for the poor and the needy,” Nyberg said as her own pinwheel twirled in the breeze.

Gwendolyn Gaston-Kelley sat bundled up on a bench, with a scarf wrapped around her face and a blanket spread over her as she and a girlfriend watched the enthusiastic crowds in front of them.

She said Obama’s victory was for all Americans, not just the black community. “He’s everybody’s president,” she said.

Gaston-Kelley flew in from Warren, Mich., to witness the scene. “I kind of figured [the election of a black man] would be possible, but not in my lifetime,” she said. “I thought maybe in my grandkids’.’”

Further down the Mall, Alece Oxendine talked about her experiences on the Obama campaign and how she almost didn’t come to the inauguration. But being there helped affirm her belief that with Obama, better times are ahead.

The Durham, N.C., resident was laid off from her job last week, but she remained optimistic. “I still have hope that things are going to change around,” she said.