Obama’s somber, hopeful speech inspires Mainers

Posted Jan. 20, 2009, at 9:21 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Deborah Morrison sat, rapt.

A homemade scarf with red and white stripes and blue stars encircled her neck. Her hands cradled her chin. Her eyes were fixed on a small television, one of many that had been wheeled into the Memorial Union at the University of Maine.

For 30 minutes Tuesday as President Barack Obama took his oath and then delivered a simultaneously somber and hopeful speech, Morrison smiled.

“I’ve waited a long time for this,” said the 46-year-old psychology major. “It’s something I didn’t think could happen in my lifetime.”

Morrison didn’t specify exactly what, in her mind, had happened Tuesday afternoon. She didn’t have to. Her sense of optimism, of pride and of relief was shared by many who had gathered at UMaine’s student center.

All the seats were full and dozens more people were content to stand. Some ate lunch. Some had books or laptops in front of them but few read or typed, at least while their new president was speaking.

During Obama’s 18-minute inaugural address, the Union likely was as quiet as it ever has been at lunchtime on a weekday.

UMaine was one of the many gathering places across Maine and the nation where people witnessed the swearing in of the 44th U.S. president.

At the Bangor Public Library, about 100 people gathered to watch the oath and address.

In downtown Portland, the Maine Democratic Party had to turn people away from the door at its inaugural party at the Asylum Sports Bar & Grill.

More than 100 people crowded into the space, watching the ceremonies in Washington unfold on 16 flat-screen TVs. The crowd wore Obama buttons and watched the ceremonies attentively. They clapped and gave an occasional whoop, but were intent and quiet during Obama’s inaugural speech and rose in a standing ovation when it was completed.

Melinda Wilkins, 31, said she attended the gathering because she felt the need to be with others at such a defining moment.

“I wanted to share — what’s the word? — the powerfulness of this event with other people,” she said.

At schools from elementary level to universities, students gathered in auditoriums, cafeterias and classrooms to watch America’s first black president take office.

On Isle au Haut in Penobscot Bay, the eight children who attend the island town’s one-room schoolhouse trekked to a nearby home to watch the events on TV.

Teacher Paula Greatorex said the children, who are in grades one through eight, were attentive and excited as the new president was sworn in.

“We had sparkling cider and we toasted Barack Obama,” she said.

The 400-plus students of the Glenburn School had gathered in the darkened gymnasium to watch the inauguration ceremonies, which were projected onto a giant screen on the wall. The students sat on the gym floor, cheering enthusiastically after each speech or performance and occasionally giggling at the images of spectators waving to the camera or wearing funny hats.

But when it came time for Obama to take the oath of office, the whispering ceased as all eyes focused on the screen. And when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., instructed the untold thousands gathered outside the Capitol to please rise for the swearing-in ceremony, a gymnasium full of kindergartners through eighth-graders in Glenburn, Maine — more than 600 miles away — dutifully stood up.

Afterward, the basketball court echoed with their cheers and applause.

“I thought it was cool and I’ll remember it … because he is the first African-American president and it’s a historic moment,” observed 10-year-old Corey Merritt.

For Merritt’s fifth-grade teacher, Mark Morse, Obama’s election and inauguration represented the ultimate teaching tool.

The historic event blended perfectly into Morse’s lessons on the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and the American election process.

“It’s been one of those incredible, teachable moments,” said Morse, who also helped organize Tuesday’s event at the school.

One of the more unusual events was at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, where more than 200 people showed up for an inaugural-watching party with a buffet featuring the favorite foods of presidents. The foods included Lyndon Johnson’s Texas chili, John F. Kennedy’s New England chowder and Bill Clinton’s chicken enchiladas — along with pasta dishes in honor of Obama, who has a liking for Italian food.

“We knew it would be well-attended, but we got more people than we anticipated,” said spokeswoman Karen Gonya. “The sentiment people felt was that it was a historic event, whether they voted for him or not.”

Back in Orono, Kathryn Olmstead, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UMaine, said she had witnessed every inauguration since Dwight D. Eisenhower, and said she never has seen anything like this before.

“I can’t help but think of friends of mine who have passed away and wished they could have seen this,” she said shortly after Obama’s speech concluded. “The national outpouring is inspiring.”

Amy Fried, a political science professor at UMaine, watched the speech with Olmstead and other faculty members. She called the president’s address unifying.

“It had all the important themes and values that became his strength during the campaign,” Fried said. “He really tries to start with what people have in common and work from there. In terms of the involvement and the excitement that we’re still seeing two months after the election, it’s extraordinary.”

BDN reporter Kevin Miller and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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