Residents of the other Washington celebrate history

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 20, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Some sat in the reserved seats, up close. Others were far down the National Mall, watching the jumbo screens in a crowed estimated by some at more than 2 million. But wherever they were, Washington state residents on Tuesday helped celebrate a unique moment in the nation's history.

The great-great-grandson of a Virginia slave, Les Purce, president of The Evergreen State College, was 40 or so yards away when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president and the first black president.

"It was electric," Purce said. "I could not help but think about my great-great-grandfather and his family. All these people had such great hope. We made a great leap today. I'm searching for words."

Others also struggled to put it in perspective.

"For me it was overwhelming," said Leslie Braxton, a senior pastor at a Renton church who grew up in Tacoma's rough Hilltop neighborhood and as a 9-year-old was bused to a virtually all-white school five miles from his home. "I got a little teary eyed."

Braxton said his grandfather always said electing an African-American president would never happen, but his grandmother would scold him and tell him it was up to God.

"Things change," Braxton said. "It may be slow, but it is happening."

Everyone agreed it had been an extraordinary experience, though some were a little overwhelmed.

As their bus rolled back to their hotel in suburban Maryland, many of the 30 students from Tacoma's Mason Middle School were sound asleep. It had been a long day. They headed down town at 4:30 a.m., spent hours in line to get through security and wound up standing off to the side of the Washington Monument.

"Sure I'm tired, but it was a once in a lifetime thing," said 13-year-old Allison Hakanson.

Marilyn O'Malley-Hicks, a teacher and tour leader, said that at times it was a difficult day, adding that police and inaugural officials seemed unprepared for the size of the crowd.

"I'm tired," she said. "But the deal is, it was an interesting experience."

Students from Kennewick's Kamiakin High School were also all but exhausted. Even though they had tickets to the inaugural, the group stood in line for three hours and then made it in after a minor stampede trampled a security fence.

"We had a pretty exciting day and I'm glad we got out in one piece," said Sabiha Khan, a history teacher at Kamiakin. Despite the long waits people in the crowd were laughing, joking and sharing stories, she said. "Everyone thought it was worthwhile."

Zahra Khan, Sabiha's daughter and a teacher at Pasco's New Horizons School, agreed.

"Obama seemed like a dot in the distance, but the whole thing was awesome," Zahra Kahn said.

Richard May, 42, of Blaine, flew a red-eye flight from Costa Rica and arrived in Washington, D.C., midmorning to attend.

"It was closure, it was very satisfying," said May. He said adding Obama's speech had a somber" tone to it. "He had already done the uplifting thing."

A Belfair couple who founded Grandparents for Obama gave up after waiting three hours to get into the official inaugural area. But it wasn't all bad. Daniel and Ann Roy returned to their hotel, which overlooked Pennsylvania Avenue, in time to see Obama and President Bush drive by in a limousine headed for the Capitol.

"We decided if we couldn't see it live, we would watch it on television," Daniel Roy said. "Sure I'm disappointed, but I feel I have been very fortunate."

The state's politicians had a different perspective, watching the inauguration from the podium.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire was almost speechless at the size of the crowd. She said she could hear a cheer start out somewhere by the Washington Monument, and when it reached the Capitol it was all but a roar.

"I've never seen anything this historic in my life. I can't think of anything that comes close," Gregoire said. "As far as you could see there was nothing but people. Oh my word."

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the view from where she was sitting was unbelievable.

"You walk out there and see all those people on the Mall -- it was breathtaking," Cantwell said.

Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., was also awed.

"I will never see a day like this again," Baird said. "It was amazing, this incredible sea of humanity."

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said simply, "America came to the nation's Capital this week."

All of the lawmakers praised Obama's speech, saying he had issued a call to arms to Congress and the American people to start dealing with the nation's problems.

But it was Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who offered some perspective explaining that the House Appropriations Committee will consider a stimulus bill Wednesday worth more than $800 billion.

"Now the hard part begins," Dicks said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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