Kent welcomes first president in 100 years


Laura Fong

U.S. President Barack Obama interacts with students and member so the community after his campaign speech in the M.A.C. Center Wednesday. Obama’s speech covered topics like keeping jobs in American and taking care of veterans. Photo by Laura Fong.

Leighann McGivern

Excitement was palpable all around the Kent State campus Wednesday as crowds of people gathered in common interest — to see the first president to come to Kent in 100 years.

The line of Kent State students waiting to see President Obama in the M.A.C. Center was interspersed with elementary school students playing hooky and local residents alike. The line stretched around Olson Hall, past the M.A.C. Annex, all the way to Prentice Hall, wrapped around the Commons and ended back at Prentice. Still more people gathered on downtown sidewalks and in local establishments hoping to catch a glimpse of the president or his motorcade.

Rumors began to surface Sept. 20 that Obama would be stopping in Kent as part of his presidential campaign for re-election on Election Day, Nov. 6. Tickets were distributed at 9 a.m. Monday to a crowd that stretched down the Esplanade from Risman Plaza past the Art Building. Tickets ran out quickly.

People began gathering outside of the M.A.C. Center as early as 10 p.m. Tuesday, where they braved the elements to be the first admitted to see the president’s speech.

Air Force One landed at the Akron-Canton Airport at 3:30 p.m. as people continued to wait in the rain hoping to be admitted into the M.A.C. Center. Around 4:30 p.m., security began to turn away ticket holders and directed them to the Student Center Ballroom to watch a live feed of the speech.

Around the same time, a 20-plus car motorcade, including a limo, vans, a black SWAT truck, an ambulance, several highway patrol cars, Kent police cars and motorcycles were spotted on campus. Police and Secret Service were stationed atop the Student Center and M.A.C. Center.

Those denied access to the M.A.C. Center were visibly upset, especially those who had waited several hours to be turned away.

Graduate economics student Ceola Eastwood said she waited two hours in line Monday morning to get her ticket and joined the line Wednesday around 2:30 p.m. She was one of many ticketholders turned away at the door.

“They said doors open at 3:30, but I didn’t know there would be a line,” Eastwood said. “I’m a swing voter. I’m leaning toward Obama, but I can go either way. I’m one of the people he should be convincing right now.”

In actuality, security began admitting people into the M.A.C. Center around 2:30 p.m. in groups of about 50. The M.A.C. Center has capacity for just over 6,300, though the crowd let into the M.A.C. Center reached 6,600. Attendance for the president’s speech was the highest attendance of any event held in the M.A.C. Center since 1971.

Jason Mitalski, an AT&T worker, set up audio, visual and Internet cables in the M.A.C. Center all day Monday. He received two free tickets from the Secret Service and was also was turned away after showing up at 2:30 p.m. One of his co-workers was able to make it inside and texted him during the speech.

“I’m kind of pissed,” Mitalski said. “It’s just disappointing. I would have liked to see the president in person.”

Both Eastwood and Mitalski stood behind the M.A.C. Center during the speech and watched the motorcade leave on Midway Drive afterward.

Inside the M.A.C. Center, Evan Gildenblatt, executive director of Undergraduate Student Government, was the first speaker to address the crowd, who cheered in false hopes following his speech, thinking the president was about to take the stage.

Gildenblatt was able to meet the president backstage and soon after tweeted, “President @BarackObama just complimented my suit. I’m going to be wearing this for a few weeks … ”

“It was pretty remarkable. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my entire life,” Gildenblatt said. “For me, as a person, to be able to express my gratitude for doing what he does was really remarkable, is the only way to put it. For the first time in my life, I’m at a loss for words. I’m definitely never going to forget this moment for as long as I live, and I’m definitely never going to be the same.”

In between each speaker, throngs of people awaiting the president’s arrival formed a wave and chanted, “Four more years!” and “Fired up! Ready to go!”

Following a zealous speech by Congressman Tim Ryan, Bryan Staul, president of the Kent State College Democrats, took the stage to introduce Obama. Staul said Obama lived up to his nickname, “No drama Obama,” because he helped to calm him down before his speech, which Obama signed a copy of backstage.

Staul got choked up during his introduction speech and said he was moved by the experience.

“It’s just beautiful — watching that many people in one room believing in one thing,” Staul said.

After pleading with his student body to make a difference in this election, Staul made the announcement that everyone in the audience was waiting to hear: Obama was coming on stage.

The crowd roared as thousands of cell phones snapped photos and filmed video of the president making his way to the podium, bearing a huge grin and waving to admiring fans around him.

After nearly a minute of pandemonium and cheers of “I love you, Obama!” resonated from the crowd, Obama addressed the M.A.C. Center in true rock star fashion: “Hello, Kent State!”

Obama’s speech touched on topics from student loans to veteran benefits and gay rights, and the crowd met his fervent speech with equally enthusiastic cheers.

After making his closing remarks, Obama descended the steps to greet those closest to the stage as Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” resounded through the speakers. The crowd pushed forward, and people reached out, hoping to shake the president’s hand or at least touch his arm.

Those who were lucky enough to make it inside the M.A.C. Center said the experience is one they won’t soon forget.

Adeyinka Adesanya, junior exercise science major and Obama for America volunteer, said she got to shake Obama’s hand following his speech.

“It was very emotional [and] uplifting,” Adesanya said. “He highlighted very key points that really touched me. He compared his plan with Mitt Romney’s. He really was breaking it down. That’s what he’s going to do [if he’s elected for a second term] is continuing to help the middle class … and getting jobs in Ohio.”

Jordan Perry, sophomore communication studies major, said after hearing Obama speak she is completely confident in the vote she will cast on Nov. 6.

“He has my vote 100 percent,” Perry said. “His view on the gay community, his views on everyone being equal — my values are aligned with what he has to do for our country.”

Dean Kahler, who was paralyzed in the shootings on May 4, 1970, was among those in the audience. Kahler has now shaken hands with three different presidents.

“He hit on all the right issues and was able to bring the crowd to their feet several times,” Kahler said. “He has the right message for America so we can move forward.”

For Kahler, being able to see the president at his alma mater was “wonderful, in one word.”

“The presidents go to places like Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Youngstown,” Kahler said. “They don’t come to Kent. It was an honor, being an [alumnus] here. It’s an honor the president came. I’m so happy that I had the privilege to see the president here in my old memorial gym.”

Scott Hamilton and his family had the opportunity to meet privately with the president, who wanted to honor their son, Adam, for his service in Afghanistan. Adam Hamilton was killed in action while fighting as an Army specialist scout/sniper in May 2011.

“I thanked him from the deepest part of my heart that he would take the time to recognize our loss and he said, ‘No sir, it’s all of our losses,'” Hamilton said.

Barack Obama is the first president to come to Portage County since Richard Nixon in October 1972. William Taft was the last president to come to Kent on May 15, 1912.

Alyssa DeGeorge, Daniel Moore, Mike Crissman and Rex Santus contributed to reporting.

Contact Leighann McGivern at [email protected].