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Have you met a president?

Alabama Living readers share their stories

Regardless of your political bent, meeting a president is a memorable occurrence. For most of us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.
For this month that includes the federal and state holiday known as Presidents Day, Alabama Living asked readers who have encountered a president – whether before he was in office, during his term or after – to share their stories.

The responses were wonderfully varied: There are federal employees who encountered presidents as part of their jobs; a college student who by a stroke of incredible luck had lunch at McDonald’s with a sitting president; and two readers who met the current U.S. leader long before he entered politics. Several wrote in to talk about meeting the peanut farmer who returned to his rural Georgia church after he left the Oval Office.

Below are some of the stories submitted, some of which were edited for clarity or length.

– Allison Griffin


Shirley Rossano, Hollywood, Ala.:

As a federal government employee, I had the opportunity to see, meet, and interact with several presidents.
My first encounter was on Jan. 20, 1961, standing on the curb in deep snow watching President John and Jackie Kennedy pass by in a convertible in his inauguration parade. I also attended the inauguration parades for Presidents Nixon and Reagan.

Another time I had the privilege of being in the Oval Room of the White House with President Jimmy Carter to see my immediate supervisor receive an award.
When I worked for the CIA, my supervisor and I escorted George H.W. Bush, then Director of Central Intelligence, on a tour of one of our facilities. He was visiting one of the labs that processed photos from spy satellites, and he was looking at some photos in real time. This was during the Cold War. Mr. Bush is peering into the microscope in the above photo.

I was also in attendance at a ceremony when President Clinton visited our facility in the 1990s.


David Batt, Orange Beach:

In 1965, I was working in Washington for Congressman Joe Waggonner of Louisiana when we received a call from the White House that President Lyndon Johnson would be signing a piece of legislation I had helped draft. The signing would occur later that day and Rep. Waggonner, myself and another staff member were invited to attend.

The legislation was a “private relief” bill to relieve several military personnel of having to repay money the government had erroneously paid them. We expected others there because several other members of Congress had co-authored the measure, but when we entered the oval office, it was just the three of us. The president signed the bill and handed each of us a pen. The photo shows President Johnson handing a pen to me.

Not too surprising, the signing of the bill was not the real reason we were there. Rep. Waggonner, a strong states rights advocate and a leader of conservative Democrats, was blocking the highway beautification bill being pushed by Lady Bird Johnson because he believed it usurped a state’s rights regarding the placement of highway billboards. To watch President Johnson and Rep. Waggonner, standing next to me, “debate” the issue was an experience I will never forget.


Cecilia Sprinkle Sanaie, Fort Payne:

When I was very young and had my first “history” lesson, which was about Presidents of the United States, I decided that one day I would meet the president and shake hands with him. Growing up and then in my adulthood, each time I saw a president on the news I would remind myself that one day I was going to meet and shake hands with the president.

I went to the White House seven out of the eight years that George W. Bush was president, and had tea with first lady Laura Bush through the National Federation of Republican Women, but never had a chance to shake hands with President Bush.

As it happened, he was coming to Kansas where I lived for a fundraiser for Sen. Pat Roberts and I was fortunately privileged to attend! I have to be honest and say that I NEVER got to shake his hand, but the hug and kiss on the cheek was worth all the years I had waited to meet the president!


David Hitchcock, Elberta:

I previously worked for the Navy at NAS Pensacola Fire Department. I was B-shift Assistant Fire Chief.

When Hurricane Ivan hit on Sept. 16, 2004, we were preparing to receive President George W. Bush so he could look at the damage along the Gulf Coast. We had received his advance team of Secret Service and we were housing his vehicles in our fire station. The fire station withstood the storm very well and only received minor damage.

I worked the 24-hour shift from 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 18 to 7:30 a.m. Sept. 19. It was a day of surveying damage at the Navy base and working to make sure we helped the Secret Service and make sure the president didn’t have any problems.

The shift ended and I was on my way home when I got a call from my boss, Fire Chief Carl Thomann. He asked me to return to station and he couldn’t tell me why but I would not regret it. I was still on the base so I turned around and returned to the station.

When I got there he told me to get in his staff car and at that time he advised me we were on our way to meet President George W. Bush.

The picture shows all the different heads of the different agencies involved in dealing with Ivan, and Bush shook all of our hands and thanked us for doing what we do. I was the second to last in line and prior to starting the greeting I got clearance to present President Bush a challenge coin (of our fire department). He asked for the coin and looked it over, gave it back to me, and gave me permission to do so. The picture shows us shaking hands and I had just given him the coin and he thanked me and put it in his pocket.

It was an honor to meet him and I am very happy that I had enough sense to turn around and not go home.


Bonnie and Milton Taylor, Remlap:

My husband and I were fortunate to be able to meet President George W. Bush on Thursday, June 21, 2001, when he visited Birmingham. (He was greeted by Alabama Air National Guard workers and their families.)

Our son was in charge of this visit. I would say there were at least 500 or more people as well as lots of children.

President Bush tried to shake hands with each one.

 


Barbara Miller, Brilliant, Ala.:

My daughter, Myra, is senior vice president of the Winston Group, a strategic planning and research firm in Washington, D.C.

During the Bush administration, she worked closely with the White House as well as the House and Senate leadership.

In 2007, she was invited to the White House for a Christmas event. Instructed to “bring a guest,” she invited me, her mother.

Indeed a memorable evening made even more special by meeting President George W. and Mrs. Bush.


Linda Morgan, Crane Hill:

I met future President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., in 2006 when I was there to attend an airshow at Andrews AFB and to meet a young girl, Baylie Owen, who had had the same brain surgery I did.
My surgery for Arnold Chiari Malformation was in 2002 at age 57. Chiari is a condition where the brain herniates down into the spinal cord. If not repaired it will cut off the flow of spinal fluid between the brain and the spinal cord and can lead to death.

I read about Baylie Owen in People magazine.  This adorable 5-year-old cutie had Chiari surgery at the University of Chicago. Baylie decided to raise money for Chiari research by making beaded bracelets and selling them for $5 each. In one year she made $100,000 and donated all of it to the University of Chicago for research.

I talked with Baylie and her mom by phone, and learned that we were both going to be in Washington, D.C. at the same time. We arranged to meet and attend a coffee sponsored by then-Illinois Senators Obama and Dick Durbin at the Senate Office Building. I invited Baylie to attend an air show at Andrews AFB with me.

During the senators’ coffee for their Illinois constituents, Baylie and others were invited to the podium to tell the senators what they needed help with. After telling her story, she turned, faced the two senators, placed her hands on her hips and said “Gentlemen, I cannot continue to raise money for Chiari research by myself – I NEED your help.”

Sen. Obama pointed at Bailey and said, “Young lady, I want YOU on my staff.” After the coffee we sold Bailey’s bracelets to the attendees and made $500 in about 15 minutes. We were photographed with the two senators, who sent the photos to us.

Then we were off to the airshow. The Andrews AFB newspaper wrote a terrific story about Baylie. We sat under the wing of the B-17 Memphis Belle used in the Hollywood movie of the same name and sold a lot of bracelets. All in all a grand weekend for two brain surgery survivors who got to meet a future president.


Ralph Crow, Smiths Station:

In the spring of 1994, my son Matt and I traveled to Plains, Ga., to hear President Carter teach Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church.

It was so awesome for Matt and I to worship with our former president and first lady.

Matt and I were able to shake hands with them and have our picture made after the service.

Mrs. Carter, I remember her squeezing my arm real tight. They were both so friendly.


Shirley Cunard, Rockford:

My husband, Sam, and I visited Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., around 2010. We arrived early and were able to sit with others near the front. Former President Carter would be teaching Sunday school and we were briefed on not making an effort to shake hands with him.

After Sunday school was over, as President and Mrs. Carter re-entered the sanctuary for the morning service, President Carter reached out to shake hands with Sam, no one else, just Sam! Sam said, “Well, he offered and I was not going to refuse him.”

Following the morning service, we took a picture with President and Mrs. Carter. While getting ready to take the picture, President Carter chuckled when I said, “Ain’t nobody in Coosa County, Alabama gonna believe this!


Jennifer Coker, Georgiana:

In April 2014, my family and I decided at the last minute to take a quick weekend trip to celebrate my father’s 64th birthday. I remembered reading Jimmy Carter’s book, “An Hour Before Daylight,” which was his story of growing up on the family farm in Plains, Ga., during the Depression era. I was intrigued by the book and wanted to visit his boyhood home and farm.

We drove to the Carter farm, which is located just outside of Plains. The farm includes the main house, a tenant house, a store, several barns, and a blacksmith shop. As we toured the grounds, we noticed a larger group of people just outside the house. We noticed several government vehicles pull up, and Secret Service agents emerged quickly and made the home temporarily unavailable to those other than the private group. A little while later we watched from a distance as Mr. Carter came down the steps of the back porch and addressed the group. We were all in awe that we were actually seeing a former president in person.

Later, we meandered through several of the small stores on Main Street. Soon Mr. and Mrs. Carter were walking past my parents as they sat on a bench in front of a store. My Daddy and Mr. Carter exchanged nods as many Southern gentlemen do. I did not want to intrude, but did not want to pass up on an opportunity either so I made my way across the street and the Carters graciously allowed us to have our pictures made with them. The encounter was brief, unexpected, and definitely a once in a lifetime experience for us small-town folks from Georgiana, Ala.


Steven Neleson, Guntersville:

This photo was taken in Donald Trump’s office in Trump Tower in New York City in August of 1989.

Our family was attending the wedding of my cousin, whose future father-in-law just happened to be one of Trump’s personal lawyers and friend. The lawyer was giving us, his new extended family, a tour of the city and, unexpectedly, took the opportunity to introduce our family to Mr. Trump in his office.

Mr. Trump was very personal and pleasant and took the time to meet each one of us and asked where we lived and what we did for a living. After the introduction, the lawyer had a short one-on-one meeting with Mr. Trump and must have told him about my situation with cancer, which I battled in 1988 and 1989.

After the wedding I made one last final trip to the hospital for chemotherapy. When I got home this letter was in my mailbox. I was not expecting the letter when I got home, and it was a nice surprise and keepsake. Unfortunately, the signature has faded over time.


Bill Moore, Fyffe:

I am a retired wholesale fine arts dealer who sold original oil paintings to galleries and interior designers, throughout the southeast but especially in Florida.

I actually met Mr. Trump twice. Once in the spring of 1995, when he visited our showroom at the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C. He was somewhat aloof and distant, barely speaking and not making conversation. I have since decided that was his way of not being overwhelmed in public.

Later that year, I met him at the Mar-a-Lago, his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He was very friendly and personable, and talked at length with me. We talked about the estate there. He was very proud of the beautiful home and grounds. The mansion originally consisted of 114 rooms and was later expanded to 126 rooms. It was built in 1927 by Marjorie Merriweather Post, of the Post cereal fortune.

Mr. Trump drew my attention to the arched gate in front of the home, of which he was especially proud, and which was once the front entrance to the estate, but is no longer used because it is not large enough to accommodate today’s automobiles.

Mr. Trump saw the Alabama tag on my truck and talked to me about Alabama football. He took me into a couple of rooms of the mansion.

Mr. Trump purchased 16 paintings from me. He wanted to negotiate the price of each one, which I resisted at first, but I decided that was his way of doing business. I really enjoyed our bantering back and forth. He was a tough but fair negotiator. I had several paintings by a particular artist that he especially liked but would not buy because, he said, they were too expensive for him.

It was my pleasure to meet Mr. Trump. I told him of my appreciation for him because I know of a case where he provided extreme generosity to someone in great need.


Debbie Deese, proprietor of Red’s Little School House restaurant in Montgomery County:

It was raining when I drove our school bus onto Mr. Ray Scott’s property in 1990w. Kinda cute using an old school bus for Red’s Little School House to cater out of, huh? We were instructed to set up the buffet line in a garage. There was a side door that led to a tent filled with tables and chairs for the guests.

I didn’t get to see President George H.W. Bush come through the line because I was running back and forth to the bus for refills. In the process, I dropped a ladle and it rolled under a work table. There is a rubber mat that runs down the center of the bus, and it was wet. As I was crawling around to get my ladle, I got two big black stains on my knees.

As we were cleaning up, Mr. Scott came to tell us he was bringing President Bush to meet us. Oh my, I looked so dirty! What would I say? I told myself to be polite and calm. (Very hard for me.) Another thought: there were issues with Israel at that time; dare I talk politics with him? The scriptures clearly say, woe to any nation against Israel. No matter what, I did not want to sound like the country bumpkin that I truly am. When they walked up, I had something like an out-of-body experience and I heard myself say, “me and my boy picked them collard greens yesterday.” Can’t take the country out of me!


Jim Strickling, formerly of Huntsville:

It was a beautiful day, that Saturday, May 18, 1963. And it was a special day. The President was coming to town. My children and I spent the morning at a neighborhood park enjoying the sunshine. It was there that I first mentioned to my 4 ½-year-old daughter, Katrina, that the president was coming to Huntsville that day. “President Kennedy?” she asked. “Yes,” I answered, “and if we go to see him, maybe he’ll give you his autograph.”

She seemed somewhat more excited than I had expected. Maybe she sensed his importance because she had seen him on television so often.

Somehow, we managed to get in the very front of the crowd, right against the retaining rope near the rostrum. As the hours passed, Katrina grew more anxious every minute we waited. With 10,000 people standing restlessly around, she realized more than ever that our visitor had to be somebody really special. At long last, a huge gleaming jet approached the nearby airstrip, and within minutes after that, the president of the United States was standing before us.

We wanted to make pictures, but how does one make pictures with an umbrella in one hand, two cameras in the other, and a small daughter around the neck being squeezed by 10,000 people?

I set Katrina down and attempted to stick my umbrella into the ground. It bent double; I guess it was time to buy a new one anyway. All this as a Secret Service Agent was yelling “Get that child out of here.” I got a shot of the rostrum, but a picture of Katrina with the president was out of the question.

It was a short speech, but impressively oriented toward a space-conscious city. When he finished speaking, the president turned to leave. The crowd stampeded toward him.

“President Kennedy didn’t sign my om-ga-lope (envelope),” Katrina wailed. I picked her up and bulldozed my way to the rear of the rostrum, where we managed to get between the president and his plane. After a few minutes of difficult maneuvering through the crowd, the president was within arm’s reach.

Thrusting her envelope before him, Katrina asked sweetly, “Mr. Kennedy, will you please sign my om-ga-lope?” He paused, looked at her, took it, signed it, and returned it.

“Thank you, Mr. Kennedy.”

Katrina’s om-ga-lope had now become a treasure. Guarding it carefully we eased through the crowd and made our way home.

Six months later, the whole world was stunned by an assassin’s bullet. For three solid days, Katrina watched the tragic proceedings on television with a continuing question in her little heart: “Why did he have to die? He was my friend.”

 

Strickling and his daughter would have another nice encounter with a future president not long after:

In 1965, I was transferred to California, where my job on NASA’s Apollo program continued. Ronald Reagan was soon campaigning for his first term as governor of California. Katrina and I went to see him when he made a campaign stop in nearby Santa Ana.

Mr. Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were gracious enough to pose for a picture with Katrina and give her his autograph.


John Barnett, Brewton and Monroeville:

I have had the pleasure of meeting both Bushes, and Jimmy Carter when he was governor of Georgia and beginning his run for the presidency.

I met President Carter at his son Chip’s wedding in Hawkinsville, Georgia, in the early 1970s. I was invited to come over by a girl I had dated. He was cordial and we did not speak very long but he told me to “take care of those pretty girls you are with.” I laughed and told him I would try.

The circumstance of meeting the elder Bush was somewhat unusual. I was attending business a meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., and George H.W. Bush was the keynote speaker. It was during the 2000 campaign for George W. Bush. After the dinner, the attendees could line up for a photo op with the former president, and we all got an autographed copy of his book.

When it was my turn for the photo, he was sitting down and appeared white as a sheet. I commented that it was a pleasure to meet him and that he did not look like he felt very well. He smiled and said, “Oh, I’ll be fine,” and I filed on out and went to my room. When I woke up the next morning the news reported that “former President Bush is resting comfortably at a local hospital,” which shocked me. It turns out he had been campaigning and was just exhausted from it all.

I was invited to sit at the Bedsole Foundation table when former President George W. Bush spoke at a University of Mobile function in 2010, and we had an opportunity for a photo with the president. I had seen Nelle Harper Lee that day, and I told him that she sent her regards. He asked, “Is she a friend of yours?” I said yes, she was. My grandfather and her father were law partners, and I was law partners with Miss Alice Lee, her sister, for many years.

He also told me that “Laura told me that if I was giving the Medal of Freedom to anyone it was going to be Harper Lee.” (Bush presented the award to Lee in 2007.)


Charles Patterson, Elkmont:

The morning of Oct. 15, 1984, was an exciting one for me. President Reagan was coming to Tuscaloosa to speak to the student body at the University of Alabama, so not only was I going to be able to see the president of the United States, but I didn’t have to go to classes that day.

When his speech at Memorial Coliseum (now Coleman Coliseum) ended, I decided to drive out to the airport to watch Air Force One take off. State troopers had the entrance to the airport blocked and wouldn’t let anyone in, so I turned around and headed to get some lunch before reporting to work at Battle’s Auto Parts.

I chose to eat at the McDonald’s in Northport so I could at least see the motorcade drive by on its way to the airport.

I went in and ordered my meal and sat down by a window. In a few minutes, I saw the motorcade making a left turn onto McFarland Boulevard off Bridge Avenue. As it started up the incline, it turned onto the access road alongside McFarland and then turned into the Wendy’s next door.

The motorcade circled Wendy’s and waved at everyone inside the Wendy’s and then came up the access road and turned into the McDonald’s.

I thought to myself that the motorcade was going to do the same thing and circle and wave at everyone then head to the airport. I stepped out on the sidewalk and waved to the president as his limousine went by. Just as I got seated at my tray, I noticed the motorcade had stopped.

About that time, one of President Reagan’s aides came into the McDonald’s and announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the president of the United States.”

President Reagan then walked in. He stopped at the door with the aide and they kind of huddled together and pointed at me.

President Reagan walked on up to the counter to place his order, and the aide came over to me. When he got to me he told me that the president had sent him over to ask me if I would have lunch with him. I said, “Sure. Just show me where to go.”

He asked me to bring my tray over to a table that they had chosen. I took my tray over and waited on the president. He came to the table a couple of minutes later.

I stood up, stuck out my hand and introduced myself to the president, and he said, “Charles, let’s eat.’’

I had a Big Mac and a fish sandwich, a large fry and a Dr. Pepper. He had a Big Mac, a large fry and an unsweet tea.

What was cool about the unsweet tea was that when he got to the table he reached into his pocket and he pulled out what looked like was an ink pen. He held it out over the tea and started clicking it, like you would click a fountain pen.

A white powder fell out into the tea. It was a sweetener. Someone said, “Oh, oh. It looks like our president is using a controlled substance.’’ And everyone got a big kick out of that. I had never seen one of those pens before and I haven’t seen one since.

As soon as we sat down, camera flashes started going off and reporters started asking a barrage of questions. There were news cameras pointed at us and microphones hanging over our heads.
I tried to be calm, but this was quite unnerving for a 23-year-old kid. I noticed at one point that when I dipped my fry into my ketchup, it was shaking as I put it into my mouth.

President Reagan was super nice. He wanted to know where I was from, how old I was, what I was majoring in at school. He talked some about Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Alabama football. He was a genuinely nice man. I have told people that it was almost like talking to your grandfather. He was easy to talk to.

While we were eating, one of his aides came up and said, “Mr. President, we need to leave.” The president told him to let him finish his hamburger. The aide left but came back just a few minutes later. He again said, “Mr. President, we have to be in Georgia so we need to leave.” President Reagan told him rather sternly, “I’m going to finish this hamburger.” The aide walked away.

The president then leaned over to me and said, “You see what I have to put up with?”

He then smiled. He seemed to be enjoying his hamburger. He told me that that was the first time he had eaten a hamburger in a McDonald’s since before he was governor of California.

As soon as he put the last bite of his hamburger into his mouth, the aide once again came up to him. “Mr. President …” was all he got out of his mouth. President Reagan said, “Here, take my fries and my tea and put them in the car.”

We stood up and shook hands again, and he spoke to others in the McDonald’s and headed to the limousine. I walked Sen. Jeremiah Denton to his car and he told me, “Son, you have made history today. You are the first person in history to eat lunch inside a fast food restaurant with a sitting president.”

That night I was on all three major network news shows. I taped them all. They are burned on CDs now. The next day, I was in newspapers from Maine to San Francisco. I got copies of all I could, and they are in a scrapbook in my home.

The next week, I was in Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report magazines.

I flew to Washington a few weeks later for a job interview. While in Washington, I left an 8-by-10 photo with a White House staff member.

President Reagan signed it and mailed it back to me. He also sent me an invitation to his inauguration. I have both the photo and the invitation hanging on a wall in my home.

Over the years, my lunch with President Reagan aired on HBO’s “Not Necessarily the News’’ and was also included in two documentaries, one on A&E and one on the History Channel.

The day President Reagan died, on June 5, 2004, I had four news crews at my home and I relived that lunch again.

What a day I had back on Oct. 15, 1984, at the McDonald’s in Northport.