Albert Lea witnesses history

Published 9:29 am Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Albert Leans both young and old said they were excited, happy and proud Tuesday to watch the inauguration of the country’s 44th president Barack Obama, the first black president in history.

Whether in their homes, at work, or at school, they took a little bit of time out of their day to see and hear the change in administration from George W. Bush to Obama.

“It gives me cold chills, it’s so wonderful,” said Mary Claassen, who was watching the inauguration at a special get-together at Thorne Crest Retirement Community. “We’re making history today. I think he’s going to try real hard.”

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Claassen and the other residents at Thorne Crest were gathered together in the facility’s dining room, sitting at patriotic-decorated tables while the news events were cast up on the wall by a projector screen. There were two other smaller televisions at each of the ends for those who weren’t near the projector screen.

They watched as more than a million people came out to show their support for the new president and his message of hope, despite the frigid temperatures in Washington, D.C. Then they watched as the country’s leaders came into the event one by one.

They remarked about first lady Michelle Obama’s dress, but as a whole they were silent, soaking it all in.

“I’m really happy and proud to be an American,” Claassen said, reflecting on the experience. “I think Obama will unify the country.”

Staff at Thorne Crest had set up the event, which included a special lunch and even an Inauguration Day program that listed the singers and speakers for the ceremony.

Dorothy Harty, who was another one of the residents watching the inauguration, said she wouldn’t have missed the ceremony for anything.

Obama’s inauguration is historic not only because he is the first black man to become president but also because he carries such a message of hope, she said.

It says a lot about this country to elect him, she continued. The United States has grown tremendously over the years.

She recalled times locally when there was only one black family in Albert Lea.

In the 1930s through 1950s, Millard and Cordelia Easter were the only black family in town, according to city directories. He worked as a janitor at the Broadway Theater.

Times have definitely changed, she said, and it shows the freedoms the people here enjoy.

While the Thorne Crest residents have had the opportunity to witness several presidential inaugurations during their life span, another realm of Albert Leans were watching an inauguration for the first time in their lives.

Over at St. Theodore Catholic School, students throughout the school had their eyes glued to the television sets in their classrooms, being just as silent as the Thorne Crest residents.

They watched intently as Vice President Joe Biden was sworn in first and then as Obama was sworn in. Even as Obama addressed the American people in his speech afterward, they sat in silence.

“I stand here today humbled by the task before us,” Obama said at the start of his remarks.

He talked of the United States being in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And he said he will work to strengthen the economy and help those who have been affected by hard times, including loss of jobs and homes.

While the challenges this country faces are real, they will be met, he said.

“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin the work of remaking America,” Obama said.

Following the speech, fifth- and sixth-grade students in Ryan Hillman’s class shared what they learned from the inauguration and Obama’s speech.

The points that stood out to them included the president’s support for putting an end to the Iraq War, helping those affected by difficult economic times and pledging that American would prevail despite what’s taking place around the world.

“I think he’ll do a lot of good things for this country like fix the economy and end the war in Iraq,” said one student, Matt Nemec, 12.

He said on election night, he stayed up late watching the votes come in and was so happy when it was all over.

Eleven-year-old Jazmin Bueno, 11, said she thought the inauguration was interesting.

“It was exciting, and I felt emotional because I had never seen one of these,” she said.

She noted that she hopes Obama will be able to help the youth of the country with education and other activities.

Sam Ellis, 11, said he like that the president talked about the past while also talking of helping people who have lost their homes and jobs right now.

It was his first time watching an inauguration, so he didn’t know what to expect, he said.

“That was so cool that I saw the first time a black president got sworn into the White House,” he said. “That was exciting. Maybe some day I’ll go to an inauguration.”

“It’s what we need really, besides world peace,” 11-year-old Emma Stensrud echoed. “It’s what we really need right now.”

Another one of the students, Tatyana Beck, said she thinks America is ready for a black president, not just because he is black but because he’s been through a lot more than many previous presidents.

Tatyana said her mother, Latacha Beck, fell down and cried when she found out on Election Day that Obama would be president. She was grateful to watch the inauguration so that she could tell her mother about what Obama hopes to accomplish for America.

She was also grateful her great-great-grandmother is still living to witness his inauguration, she said. She is from Mississippi but is living in San Diego now.

Latacha said not that many generations back there was slavery in their family.

While her great-grandmother doesn’t remember things well from day to day, one of the things they are proud to remind her each day is that she now has a black president, Latacha said.

“I’m proud of this country,” she said. “I know we had that in us to look beyond someone’s race and to look at what the country needs.”

She said she prays that a lot of other black men in this country, if they are in prison or in some other bad place in their lives, will look to Obama as a role model and turn their lives around through God.

She added that she is proud Obama will be leading the United States.

“I’m confident that God has once again allowed his will to be done,” Latacha said. “I feel he is going to definitely lead us into a new life.”

She said she knows it will take time, but she’s confident it will happen.

“It’s time to do the work as a country, one by one, piece by piece, with the Lord,” she said.