VILONIA — Vilonia Middle School cafeteria manager Sophia Hogan plans to tell her future grandchildren about the day that President Barack Obama visited the school where she worked. For the doubtful, she will show them three photos she took.
“I opened the back door to the cafeteria and, there he was and I just started snapping,” Hogan said. Obama and his presidential air convoy landed in a field in the back of the Middle School around noon. He was quickly whisked away from Marine One in a motorcade to tour tornado ravaged areas and to meet with city and state officials. He returned at about 2:45 p.m. It was then that Hogan said she “lucked” into the photo opportunity. “My battery was bad. I just kept turning it on and off and kept snapping.”
The opportunity was especially “sweet,” Hogan said. Hogan, born in Malaysia, received her United States citizenship in 2008. Obama was a presidential candidate in the first election that she was eligible to vote in. Hogan also shared another presidential story. She traveled to Little Rock to a function to see President Bill Clinton. Standing on a bench ready to snap a photo, she said, she was told to get down. “I was just really disappointed.”
The event for the middle school students and teachers began early Wednesday morning. By 9 a.m., roads were being shut down to the school and students and teachers were told to stay within the gates of the campus. By 11 a.m., students were taking turns in the cafeteria eating. Some had their noses pressed to the window anxiously hoping for a glimpse of the president.
Teachers were also hopeful. They took turns, standing behind a locked metal gate, facing directly into landing field awaiting Obama’s arrival. However, it appeared the spectators with the bird’s eye view was the cows in a nearby field.
They talked among themselves about the visit from the “sitting president” being a rare opportunity for the city. History is being made, said teacher Debbie Knowles. A former civics teacher, Knowles said, she talked with her students about Obama when he was first elected.
“What a teachable moment this is,” she said. “Makes me wish I was still teaching civics.”
Teacher Carol Edwards told her peers that she hoped Obama had the opportunity to meet some tornado victims.
Teachers also shared things they had observed from their classroom windows including snipers readying themselves.
“It’s not often you get to watch snipers assembling equipment,” said Tambrey Kinley. “That gave the kids a show.” That is, she said, until the students were seen peaking. Then, she said, they blocked the view and went on with their business.
There was joking and laughing for the wait with different teachers coming and going. Dr. Frank Mitchell, school superintendent, was also on hand for the landing. He said he hoped the staff and students realized the importance of a sitting president coming to the city.
“It is probably the only time a sitting president will ever be at a Vilonia school,” he said. “Let’s hope he never has to come back for this.”
Teacher Christy Tipton, with camera in hand, announced that she was prepared for a “selfie” with the president. “I’ve got my lipstick on and I’m here now looking good,” she joked. There was some impatience and speculation as to the president’s schedule. All hoped the president would deviate from the plans and make a surprise walk in the school. There was some debate as whether he has options to deviate from schedules. There was impatience.
“It’s like waiting on Santa Claus,” said teacher Lori Barton. Sixth grader Parker Hall, who stopped to chat while changing classes, told those in wait, “I wish I could just shake his hand. It would be an honor. Presidents just hardly come to Arkansas let alone Vilonia.”
At about noon, everyone recognized the sound of the air convoy as it neared. By 12:30, the president had exited his helicopter and was inside a waiting car and a part of a motorcade. He was not visible from the students and teachers vantage point. Some expressed their disappointment that he was so close, yet not accessible. They also said they understood.
“I wish I could have met him but he was here to do something pretty important,” said student Emily McBay. “I understand. I just hope he helps the people.”
An absent president, the student body was invited by a member of the Secret Service to take a walk around a secured zone to get a little closer look at the presidential convoy. They took turn by grade levels.
By 2 p.m., students and staff were again confined to the inside the perimeter of the school. At 2:45, a group of students was changing classes as they heard the convoy taking to the air leaving. The students stopped in their tracks and watched. Some hollered, “Goodbye Mr. Obama. We hope you help our town.”