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WASHINGTON — More than a handful of Hall Countians can now legitimately flaunt the “I was there” buttons vendors were hawking up and down the streets of Washington.
They count themselves among the more than 1 million people who spanned the National Mall to view Tuesday’s inauguration of President Barack Obama. The crowd rivaled the 1.2 million people drawn to the capital city for President Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration more than 40 years ago.
“The crowds were monstrous,” said Andy Maddox, a Gainesville public defender who attended previous inaugurals.
His family and the Jody Cooley family stayed at the home of Maddox’s father on the edge of the District of Columbia.
“We were able to get a taxi to take us to Union Station, which is near where we were going,” Maddox said.
However, then things became difficult. Maddox, son Jake, and the Cooley daughters had seated tickets. The rest of their party had tickets for the standing area and never made it through the line.
Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell and his wife, Lauren, arrived at a Metro subway station only to find an impossible line.
“It was hectic just getting where you needed to go,” Bell said. “If we had waited at the Metro station, we would have missed everything. We found a good citizen who was willing to drive us into the city and he pulled us right up to our security checkpoint.”
The Bells sat about 30 yards from the platform.
“When you got there, you knew you were witnessing history,” Bell said. “It was extremely cold, but once the festivities started you forgot about the freezing temperatures.”
The wait in line for the Cooley sisters, Lila Kate and Abby, began around 8:30 a.m. The two girls had tickets to an area for seated guests but their parents, Jody and Lora, had passes to a standing area which became too full. The couple had to watch the inauguration on TV inside the nearby Rayburn House Office Building.
Cooley said the wait at times was frustrating.
“At first, I was discouraged with the line, but then I realized that we were a part of something bigger than that, we were watching history,” she said.
After about two hours, the sisters walked through metal detectors and made it to their seats, about 100 yards from the platform.
“I could see the president well,” she said. “I couldn’t see his facial features but I saw him when he stood or if he moved his head.”
When Obama spoke the last words of the oath of the president, “So help me God,” the crowd cheered, lovers kissed and thousands of American flags danced in the air near the Washington Monument. With equal enthusiasm, the audience waived former President George W. Bush’s helicopter goodbye as it flew over following the inaugural ceremony.
Maddox said he was struck by the number of older blacks who attended the ceremony.
“It was a place that you felt like you in the middle of something historic. As we were exiting, they were clearing a way for two or three of the Tuskegee Airmen,” he said.
“There were a number of elderly African-American folks from all over the country and you wouldn’t think they had the health to be there.”
But Maddox said all in all, the crowd was very diverse.
Sara Nash, a member of the Newtown Florist Club, said it was that diversity that made her proud and happy to be an American on Tuesday.
“To see that multitude and the diversity of the crowd ... I was just ecstatically happy to see a dream come true because I never thought I’d be able to see something like that, and least of all experience it,” Nash said.
Just three years ago, she said the notion of her seeing an African-American take the White House was the stuff of dreams.
“The feeling was just totally indescribable. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. I was just so happy,” Nash said.
Active in politics since his college days, Bell said he once dreamed that there would be an African-American president in his later years. He and his wife, Lauren, attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver last summer.
“For us, this has been a fantastic journey,” he said. “Having been there and watching him (Obama) give his acceptance speech in Denver and then sitting there today, it was a moment where your eyes can’t hold the emotion.”
From the trampled lawn of the U.S. Capitol, Nash stood with three other members of the Newtown Florist Club and waited with great anticipation for Obama’s image to appear on the jumbo screens.
When he finally appeared as horns heralded his presence, the crowd exploded with cheers of “Obama, Obama!”
“I saw a young man that could hold his own that was very confident. There was nothing arrogant about him,” Nash said of Obama.
She said she felt Obama is unifying the country, and looks forward to the implementation of the new ideas he will bring to the White House. “It was worth coming all the way up here, even if I am frozen solid,” Nash said.
Jennifer Gordon, a Hall County resident, volunteered with the Hall County Democratic Party to support Obama.
As she watched the inaugural ceremony from the National Mall, Gordon said she was just glad to be part of our country’s history and to have played a part in the nation moving forward.
“I was very proud of that,” Gordon said.
“For years, when I was a little girl, I would listen to my father’s stories of segregation and growing up in the South and I listened to my grandfather’s stories of World War II, the Depression and Jim Crow, and I always worried that my story wouldn’t be as in-depth as theirs,” she said. “I’ve always wondered about my generation and what kind of impact we would have on our country.
“(Tuesday) I was proud that I got to see my story play out. I got to see the beginning of my story. And this isn’t the end. It’s just the beginning.”