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About 2 million people were on hand for President Barack Obama’s inauguration, but only saw him on a TV screen. Cory Watkins, of Bedford, saw President Obama from about 20 feet away.
Watkins, a 2006 Liberty High School graduate, is a member of the Hampton University Marching Force, the university’s marching band. The junior, majoring in business management and minoring in Spanish, plays clarinet, the instrument he took up in sixth grade.
Hampton’s marching band was one of three Virginia university bands selected to march in the parade following the inauguration. A total of 44 bands from across the nation performed in the parade.
Watkins said the band members learned they had been selected in late December. After their last outdoor performance, their director had an announcement.
“We have some good news and some bad news,” the director told them. “The bad news is that we have one more outdoor performance. The good news is it’s the inauguration.”
“The band erupted,” Watkins recalled.
The band spent time getting ready for the day, which included practicing outside in the cold. They expected it to be cold, although it was absolutely frigid in D. C. on Jan. 20. Watkins said they were told it was around 19 degrees.
“Add wind chill to that, it was even lower,” he said.
The band left Hampton, bound for Washington, at midnight, dressed in their band uniforms. The drive was smooth and, after stopping for breakfast, they arrived at the Pentagon’s parking lot at 7 a.m. The early arrival let them catch three hours sleep before going through security.
“It was much needed,” Watkins said.
They were told not to take much as the bus would be emptied for a security sweep. Secret Service personnel went through the bus, then checked everything the students had. This included instrument cases and instruments. Watkins said a few instruments were damaged when Secret Service people dropped them. This did not include Watkins’ clarinet.
They were all given identification badges to wear. They also received stragglers’ cards. Watkins said that the straggler’s card would be used if a student got separated from his band. The card would show security who the student was with and help them get him to where he was supposed to be.
The students were given box lunches, something they didn’t expect, and got back on the bus. They didn’t actually see the President take his oath of office, but they listened on the radio. Then, the bus headed to the point, behind the White House, where they would get off to warm up.
“This is where everything got crazy,” he said. “I couldn’t fathom the number of people there.”
Watkins said that you can’t really appreciate what a crowd of 2 million people is until you see it.
After warming up, they waited, and waited and waited.
“We were outside for five hours before we even started to move to the starting point,” he recalled.
The Hampton band made good use of its time.
“We had a nice little performance at the beginning,” Watkins said.
The band put on a performance, including their dance routines, for the waiting crowd. Watkins said the people appreciated it.
The Hampton University Marching Force finally marched past the President’s box at 6 p.m. Watkins said it was glass enclosed and on street level and band members could see President Obama and his wife, Michelle.
“It made all of that [waiting in the freezing cold] worth it,” Watkins recalled. “I was about 20 feet from the President and the First Lady. That made it all evaporate. It was a pretty memorable experience.”
Then, there was the bus ride, with a stop for dinner, back to Hampton. The exhausted young musicians left the university’s band room at 2:15 a.m. on Wednesday.
“It was a very big honor for us and the school,” Watkins commented.
It was also an incredible experience for a young man from Bedford, Virginia.
“I definitely will never forget something like that,” he said.
Part of that was just being there. Watkins said that people who see an inauguration on TV don’t see the actual emotions.
“There was so much joy on so many faces,” Watkins recalled.
In spite of the cold and wind, people were happy and laughing.
“They had just witnessed a major part of history,” he said.
Another part was being able to see a portion of the effort involved in organizing the event and being part of it.
“Not many people can say they went to D. C. on that day,” Watkins commented. “Even fewer can say they were part of it.”
“It was pretty big for me,” Watkins added.
One of the reasons the event was big for him was the inauguration of America’s first African-American president.
“I never thought that I would see it,” Watkins said.
He believes that race is still a factor in how people view each other, but Obama’s election shows how much the country has changed. Americans are more willing to accept people for what they are, not how they look, he said.
Watkins said that, if Obama’s presidency is successful, it will change how Americans perceive people of color.
He also feels that having an African-American president should change the way black people perceive themselves. Watkins said that in the past, some people told him his skin color would be a barrier, both professionally and in relationships. Obama’s election shows that isn’t necessarily the case.
“There should not be any reason why we can’t become successful,” he said. “You can be whatever you want to be.”
What does Cory Watkins want to be?
Watkins plans a business career, noting that he has always wanted to work in that arena. He likes the idea of seeing work get done, and done right. That’s why he chose his major. He chose the Spanish minor because he believes being able to speak Spanish will help his business career.
He also has a surprise for his mother, Rhetta Watkins, who serves as the principal at Bedford Middle School. She is going to get the badges and credentials he carried as he participated in President Barack Obama’s inauguration.