A date with history in soggy shoes

A date with history in soggy shoes

There I was, walking my dog in the rain on the morning I might be meeting the president.

I wasn’t certain at that point, knowing only that I would be covering Barack Obama’s speech at Foellinger Auditorium, along with more than two dozen reporters.

I had covered a presidential speech before, Bill Clinton in 1998, but never got closer than 100 yards from his podium at the Assembly Hall (as it was known then).

But this time, I had gotten a heads-up the night before that the former president might be making an additional stop — location TBA — following his nationally televised speech and the private award ceremony at the UI President’s House. I was invited to be part of the small press pool that would be allowed to go along for the event, essentially a campaign plug for gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker. It was all kept quiet, for security reasons.

The news, while exciting, only added to my anxiety as I mentally geared up to tweet, text, post photos, take notes and write a web story on deadline about Obama’s much-anticipated speech. My husband had to remind me that most people would give their right arms for this assignment.

But on the morning of, it was the usual routine: Get up, fix breakfast, pack lunches, throw in a load of laundry — and walk the dog in the pouring rain. A working parent’s duties wait for no president.

Just to add to the tension, as I pulled out of our street to take my daughter to school — borderline late as usual — she said, “I forgot my trombone.” Really, today? Back to the house we went.Blog Photo

I made it to Foellinger in plenty of time, only slightly damp, surrendering my umbrella at the security checkpoint along with the other reporters.

I got an email detailing where we were all to meet shortly after the speech. After scrambling to write a quick story, I dashed the four blocks to the cafe at the appointed time, forgetting to grab my umbrella first. Bad idea.

Slightly soggy, I joined the small press contingent awaiting further instructions. There were the amiable Chicago reporters, several members of national news outlets and a CBS News crew, their equipment covered in plastic to protect it from the rain.

After about 45 minutes, we were led back out in the rain, juggling laptops and smartphones and umbrellas (except for me) to walk a few blocks to Caffe Paradiso.

The journalists were crowded into a small area to the right of the entrance, surrounding two unsuspecting patrons (who eventually moved).Blog Photo

The president walked in, greeted the customers on the other side of the restaurant, with his back to us, then proceeded to the counter. Looking at his back again, all I could think about was how to get a good photo to tweet and send to my editor for our live report.

Then Obama turned to the small media gaggle and said, “Now, I’m not taking any questions, but I understand there’s a couple of local reporters here I’ve never met.”

Silence. I suddenly realized he might be referring to me, as photographer Stephen Haas and I were the only local journalists there.

I was caught off-guard, because when I’d asked if we’d have a chance to question the president, I was told no.

I was also conscious of the other reporters nearby and determined to remain professional — unlike the friends who kept texting me all day, “I’m so jealous!” and “Did he ask about me?”Blog Photo

So I looked up, raised my hand like a fourth-grader and said, “I’m from The News-Gazette.”

“And what’s your name?” the former president coaxed.

Oh. “Julie Wurth,” I replied, whereupon he said it was very nice to meet me, and I mumbled something similar. Then he moved on.

I immediately thought of several things I could have said:

— It’s an honor to meet you Mr. President.
— How does it feel to be back in Champaign-Urbana?
— I’ll bet you weren’t walking your dogs in the rain this morning.
— Or an actual reporter’s question: How do you think your speech went over with Republicans, especially those in the audience?

Sigh.

To be fair, another reporter tried to ask that last question as Obama walked by but didn’t get an answer. We knew the ground rules — it was a constituent event, not a press conference.

I quickly swung back to work, taking several photos and sending them off, following Obama around the packed cafe and interviewing cafe patrons and employees for my story.

That night, finally dry, off deadline and folding laundry at home, it all hit me.
I thought about how glamorous these stories appear from the outside, but how stressful they are on the inside for almost everyone involved. I thought about our other photographers, who stood out in the rain for hours to get shots of the crowds and Obama coming and going. About the TV crews draped in plastic in a vain attempt to stay dry.

About how thoughtful it was for those organizing the event to ask Obama greet a local reporter who had never met a president from either party one-on-one. You know, an “enemy of the people.”

It was crazy, fun and definitely a career highlight.

_____________

Reporter/columnist Julie Wurth writes about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.
 

Photos:

Top: Former President Barack Obama speaks to students and other guests at University of Illinois Foellinger Auditorium on Sept. 7, 2018. Stephen Haas/News-Gazette

Middle: Obama smiles for a photo after placing his order at Caffe Paradiso, as  Julianna Stratton, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, looks on. Stephen Haas/News-Gazette

Bottom: Obama speaks to the reporters after placing his order. Julie Wurth/News-Gazette

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