URBANA — For Chicago native Will Newton, who is traveling here Friday from the University of Illinois Springfield campus, the opportunity to hear former President Barack Obama is "amazing" both personally and professionally.
"I was a freshman in high school when Obama ran for president, and fifth grade when he ran for Senate. I've just always been interested in him. I may not agree with everything he did as president," Newton said, "but it means something to be an African-American male from Chicago and see the first president who is African-American from my city, and the South Side, where I'm from.
"I'm a political-science major, too. I would never pass up a chance to see a living president," he said.
Newton has always been interested in politics, thanks to his father, a police officer with a law degree. As a youngster, Newton remembers his father watching cable news coverage of the presidential primaries from morning until night, educating his young son about primaries and delegates and the process for choosing a candidate.
"Politics and elections have always been big in my family," he said.
His first "substantive" political memory was when his father voted for Obama in the primary race for U.S. Senate in 2004, then came home and talked to him about the difference between the senate and presidency.
He also remembers sitting with his grandmother watching Obama's speech in Denver accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 2008.
She had been born in the '20s and grew up in Mississippi, getting married and having children while the South was still segregated. She didn't attend college until her children were grown. Though they grew up poor, all six of her children attended college, he said.
Watching Obama that night was "just surreal," Newton said. "Here was a woman who grew up in a certain country that she loved and did not always love her back. And I got to watch that as a person who grew up where there was no legal segregation, and I went to school with people of all races. Both of my parents went to college. I look back at this now and understand how important it was."
He knows he may not get to talk to Obama, but "even just being in the room, for it to be him is awesome, but for it to be a living president, that's just amazing," he said. "This was somebody who was a decision-maker and ran the country for eight years. This is the man who was in the room when Osama bin Laden was killed."