Many Merced residents make trip of lifetime to capital

January 21, 2009 

Tears of joy streaked down Valerie Anthony's face Tuesday, as she thought about how proud her grandfather, Jewel Payden, would have been to witness Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the United States.

Anthony recalled how her grandfather, a Jamaican immigrant who worked as a carpenter, endured years of discrimination living in Camden, Ark. There, he was often referred to as "boy" and lived in fear of being lynched by the Ku Klux Klan.

Although Payden died in 1992 at age 96, Anthony said she knows her grandfather "is smiling" somewhere in heaven. "All I could do is think about my grandfather, and how he'd be in awe to see that happen," Anthony said. "It's just kind of surreal."

Anthony, a 56-year-old Merced resident, was one of the more than 1 million people who felt drawn to Washington, D.C., Tuesday to watch Obama take the oath of office.

Several Mercedians who were there shared similar stories about their experience -- stories of how diverse crowds of people, representing all colors and ages, filled the National Mall as "far as the eye could see," waving American flags and chanting, "Obama, Obama!"

Benjamin Duran, president of Merced College, held a pair of binoculars in the National Mall, accompanied by his wife, Rosemary. Duran said he was able to actually see Obama from his vantage point in the audience.

The couple had waited two-and-a-half hours to enter the event, but they didn't mind. Duran said many people standing in line broke into song, singing "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful."

After the inauguration, Duran and others from Merced County and other Central Valley communities visited the office of Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, for a reception.

Duran said he was impressed by the diversity of the audience, which he said reflected America. "I have never a seen a crowd like this anywhere in the world in my lifetime," Duran said. "It was a fabulous, fabulous experience."

Anthony, who serves as director of Total Self Insight, a nonprofit that does domestic violence counseling, said she was also impressed by how "every color of the rainbow" was represented at the event. "There's no color. There's no race. There are only people who want to see change," Anthony said.

Merced cardiologist Hanimireddy Lakireddy, who attended the inauguration with his two sons and daughter-in-law, said cheers filled the mall the moment Obama appeared. "People are very enthusiastic and optimistic that things will get better," Lakireddy said. "They were cheering the minute he started talking. It was a lot of fun, but (the weather) was cold."

Lakireddy said security was tight, and all ticketholders had to pass through a metal detector before proceeding to the main event. Despite the numbers, Duran said all the security officers were polite, and the crowds were well behaved.

Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo, who attended the inauguration as a guest of Cardoza, said he was happy to "watch history" being made. "It's hard to explain how excited everybody is," Pedrozo said. "There's something about President Obama -- he just brings that out in people."

And he brought a lot of Mercedians to Washington.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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