For Obama fans, historic inauguration trip starts at Midway

WASHINGTON -- Though the American flags and stars and stripes bunting at Midway Airport's Gate B8 serve to welcome troops home from abroad, they did double-duty this afternoon as a patriotic backdrop for Chicagoans traveling to the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Some 50 passengers headed to the ceremony became fast friends with one another, talking, joking and trading cell phone numbers throughout the flight, which included a scheduled stop in Cleveland to pick up yet more people headed to Obama’s inauguration.

Mary Feeley was one of the lucky few to secure a single ticket to stand in a reserved section near the Capitol steps during the swearing-in ceremony.

Originally a Hillary Clinton supporter, Feeley got the ticket through her union, the AFL-CIO, which also campaigned for Clinton and then Obama.

But a lack of tickets for Tuesday’s events hardly dissuaded other travelers, like sales manager Dawnielle Balli, who lives in Bridgeport. She was eager to claim her spot among the 1.5 million people expected to crowd the National Mall on Tuesday.

“It’s just a matter of coming together as one and being excited about the change,” Balli says.

And she came prepared for cold weather—forecasts call for partly cloudy skies with highs around freezing, but wind chills in the teens.

“I brought the Under Armor,” Balli says, referring to the brand of long underwear. And she packed instant hot packs, saying, “Yeah, they’re great. I brought a whole packet.”

For Velma Cooksey, the principal of James Wadsworth Elementary School in Woodlawn, traveling to the inauguration is a reunion of sorts.

When Obama was a state senator with little name recognition, he secured a $5,000 grant for Cooksey’s school to buy new books. And Obama’s wife Michelle helped bring a medical van to Wadsworth that provided free checkups for students who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford the medical checks they needed before starting classes.

She didn’t know the Obama name before those two acts but was grateful for both. She’s convinced of Obama’s commitment to education and wants her voice to be heard.

“Mainly I want to take a seat at the table of democracy on behalf of children,” Cooksey says.

Among the top priorities for her: finding ways to fund charter schools without taking away resources from neighboring public schools, a problem she has seen play out on some Chicago Public Schools campuses. The funding disparity, she said, creates unnecessary tensions between schools.

But policy matters weren’t the only things on the minds of people headed to the inauguration.

In the baggage claim area at Baltimore’s airport, two Tuskegee Airmen said being able to attend Obama’s inauguration was significant for them, more than 60 years after they helped break down the military’s segregated ranks.

Dr. James B. Williams was one of the 101 Tuskegee Airmen arrested for insubordination after they tried to enter the all-white Freeman Field Officers’ Club at a base in Indiana in 1945.

“We were the ones that kind of forced them to integrate,” says the 89-year-old Williams, who practiced general surgery in Chicago for 26 years before retiring to Las Cruces, N.M.

Fellow Airman William B. Ellis, 92, who lives in Los Angeles, summed up the excited energy in the air Monday night.

“Heck yeah, I’m excited for tomorrow,” he says.