Send-off draws hundreds, but no Obama

Malia Obama takes in 30th Street Station as Dad gets a hug from campaign volunteer Pat Stiles of Park, Colo.
Malia Obama takes in 30th Street Station as Dad gets a hug from campaign volunteer Pat Stiles of Park, Colo.
Posted: January 18, 2009

For all but a few early-morning fitness fanatics and 250 invitation-only elites, President-elect Barack Obama was more or less invisible during his short visit to Philadelphia, where yesterday morning he boarded a train that took him to Washington for his inauguration.

Obama, who made no public appearances, did not even step into the great hall of 30th Street Station to wave at the hundreds who had gathered to wish him well.

"It looks like we're being nixed, and I don't like that," muttered West Philadelphia resident Hilda Tisdale as the morning wore on and Obama failed to emerge.

The president-elect did not nix his habitual early-morning visit to a gym, however, and GlaxoSmithKline employee Brad Bauer spotted him about 8 a.m. at the one in Sheraton's Center City Hotel.

"He was very cordial and said, 'Good morning,' and then he went to town," said Bauer, a resident of Springfield, Mo., who, like Obama, was staying at the hotel. "He's in very good shape. I was very impressed."

Bauer said he had done his best to keep up with Obama, who reportedly worked out for only about 30 minutes.

"It's kind of intimidating to be on a treadmill and you look in the [reflection] and see five Secret Service agents behind you," Bauer said. "I've never been so intimidated in my life."

Another Sheraton guest, Andrew Esensten of Pasadena, Calif., headed to the gym at 6:30 a.m., hoping to see Obama. After an hour and a half, he finally got lucky.

"It was important for me to be able to say a few words," Esensten said. He said he had told Obama that he had high hopes for his presidency. Obama thanked him, he said.

Those who staked out Obama at 30th Street Station were much less lucky. Though most knew he did not plan a public appearance, hundreds showed up, as Valerie Woods put it, hoping "just to see the back of his head."

Woods was one of many who had traveled to Philadelphia intent on following Obama as he made his way to Washington. The 40-year-old Milwaukee native was one of 15 in her family - including two well-behaved infants, one 3-year-old, and a pair of 5-year-olds - to make the trip.

"For the first time in my life, I feel like can look my children in the eye and tell them they can be whatever they want to be," Woods said. "That's why we came all this way."

West Philadelphia resident Cindy Miller had a shorter trip. She said she had always supported Obama, but swooned for him completely when she spotted a photo of him clutching a volume of poetry.

"That said it all to me: a president who reads poetry. It's not important that we see him. We know what he looks likes. But it's important that we're here," said Miller, who was wearing a sandwich-board sign that read on the back, "God bless you and your beautiful family."

As Obama's arrival at the station drew near, the guessing game began. What route would he take to the station? About 40 volunteers of Health Care for America Now veered this way and that, trying to position their banners so Obama would see them.

Inside the station, security was tight. Only ticketed passengers were permitted in the great hall, so most of Obama's supporters settled for a vantage point about 50 yards from the curtained-off room where he addressed the private group.

Reporters from news organizations as far away as Japan were on hand, trying to figure out why the next president seemed to inspire such devotion.

As they waited, those in the crowd traded stories and questions: How are you getting to the inauguration? Where do you plan to park? How many doors did you knock on for Obama last fall?

Whenever the blue curtains that hid Obama moved, conversation suddenly stopped, and people in the crowd craned their necks.

Alas, Obama never emerged.

"That's OK. He's not a rock star; he's a politician," said Shawn Moss of Kensington.

Moss, who said he was in his 20s, was one of the relative few willing to wait outside in the cold.

Referring to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington, he said: "I was too young for that. I'm not too young to do this."

There were a few grumbles. Philadelphia voted big for Obama, after all, and some in the crowd clearly were disappointed that he did not make a little time to say hello. But nobody seemed bitter.

"So long as that train of change is on the tracks, I'm happy," said Houston resident Faye Buffalo, 64, who had flown here with four friends and relatives to see Obama off. "Now I'm going to follow that train. I'm going to follow that train to Washington, D.C."


Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra

at 215-854-2827 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com.

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