A barista at a coffee shop. A general manager at a restaurant. A campaign worker. A small-town journalist. A pastor. A citizen advocate.
These Kansas Citians and others from all walks of life experienced President Barack Obama up close in the years before and during his presidency. As Obama leaves office Friday, Kansas Citians reminisced about their brushes with the historic president. Others offered quotes about what the president means to them.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection remembers Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as “warm and genuine.” In 2013, Hamilton was invited by the White House to give the message at the National Prayer Service on the morning after the president’s second inauguration. He brought his wife and their oldest daughter and her husband, who is African-American.
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“It meant a great deal to me to be preaching this event for the nation’s first African-American president,” Hamilton wrote to The Star. “The inauguration was on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I would be preaching the next morning from the same pulpit Dr. King preached his last Sunday sermon.”
Hamilton said that just before the service, the president and first lady greeted him and thanked him for being a part of the service.
“The President cracked a joke anticipating I might be a bit nervous preaching as he, his Cabinet and various members of Congress were sitting in the crowd.” Hamilton recalled in an email. “He was right and the laughter helped.”
Hamilton didn’t expect Barack Obama to remember who he was when he was invited a year later to the White House to attend the annual Easter breakfast held with faith leaders each spring. So he was surprised when Obama thanked him again for the message at the National Prayer Service and recalled what Hamilton had said about Church of the Resurrection’s partnership with urban schools in Kansas City.
Shortly after that, Hamilton was appointed by the White House to the President’s Advisory Council on Neighborhood and Faith-Based Partnerships. He said he didn’t get to meet with the president directly but was charged with looking for ways the government, faith-based groups and community organizations might work together to strengthen communities and to address the needs of America’s most vulnerable citizens.
“I was impressed with the caliber of people he had working for him and struck by his desire to do all he could in the final year of his presidency to address poverty and injustice in America,” Hamilton said.
Kristin Helling wrote a blog just after Obama’s 2014 visit to Parkville Coffee, where she worked as a barista, but she remembers the visit as if it were yesterday, she said.
Her blog recounts a flurry of activity once the Secret Service announced he would visit and how nervous and excited she and other workers were once he arrived. But her blog also shows a president with a sense of humor.
After looking over the offerings, the president said he didn’t want something with too much caffeine. After the staff suggested several drinks, he ordered a small Earl Grey iced tea, just a little sweet. The owner offered to sweeten it with lavender.
“He declined, saying he wasn’t confident enough for lavender,” Helling wrote, adding, “hilarious.”
And he joked with the staff when his tea ran over the cup because of an ice mishap:
“President Obama proceeded to put the straw into the drink, and the tea overflowed just a little bit. We all waited.
“ ‘Now that’s a good cup of tea. A little full though.’ He said after drinking it, and we all laughed.
“ ‘It was Nate. Nate did it.’ I responded quickly, no hesitation to throw him under the bus.
“ ‘You should be in congress, blaming other people.’ The president joked, and everyone laughed again.”
Even though he was trying to avoid caffeine, he happily tried some coffee when the shop’s roaster said it would mean a lot to him if he tried their beans.
“He said so many nice things about the coffee and told Tyler that he was a great roaster. He asked him how he got into the business and they talked about roasting a little bit,” Helling wrote.
Obama asked the staff questions about themselves and seemed to listen to their answers. “He made me feel like he was genuinely interested in what I was telling him,” wrote Helling, who is now the store manager.
Six months later, Royals general manager Dayton Moore still remembers the moments before the defending World Series champions filed into the East Room of the White House.
It was July 21, and the Royals had traveled to Washington, D.C., to celebrate their world championship with an official White House visit. The reasons for the trip were apolitical, of course. In a diverse major-league clubhouse, where players come from different cultures and speak different languages, world views and political stances are rarely monolithic. But as the Royals formed a greeting line in a room adjacent to the official ceremony, and President Obama arrived, Moore says a “calmness or a numbness” came over him.
“I just remember the president was so inviting, so welcoming,” Moore said. “It was something that the players will never forget.”
In some ways, the day was routine. The president regularly welcomes championship teams to the White House with a formal speech and ceremony. Obama, an avowed sports fan, seemed to relish each opportunity to welcome athletes into his home. But the Royals enjoyed an ally in the White House in press secretary Josh Earnest, a Kansas City native and devoted fan, and the enthusiasm of Earnest appeared to filter over to his boss, Moore says.
It “really kind of touched me more than any other time in my baseball career,” Moore said.
The Royals’ face time with Obama was limited. As they lined a room, Obama greeted owner David Glass and shook hands with players and staff members. But the subsequent speech in the East Room moved members of the organization, especially when Obama spoke of the creation of the new Urban Youth Academy project in Kansas City.
“What’s great is the academy is built right next to the Negro Leagues Museum,” Obama said in his speech. “So you can see the link between Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, to Frank White and to George Brett, to Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon, and the next generation of Kansas City baseball stars. And you see that continuity and understand how central this game is to America.
“So I want to thank this group for not only writing the current chapter, but hopefully writing the next chapter of our national pastime, the great game of baseball.”
“We were meeting him (Obama) with a motorcade to drive him to St. Louis for an event in support of Claire McCaskill. It was the Sunday before her election to Senate in 2006. I was her campaign manager. He said to me, ‘Wow. You guys do it right in Missouri. This will be my first ever motorcade.’ ”
—Richard Martin, McCaskill’s former campaign manager
“President Obama was a great partner for Wyandotte County, advancing policies that helped us address many core issues. Federal stimulus dollars gave our housing and infrastructure a much-needed boost. His health care and mental health policies helped insure more than 6,000 Wyandotte Countians and opened up an important dialogue about mental illness. He delayed (deportation) action for childhood arrivals, giving hope to children of immigrants in our community. He even offered his personal condolences last year after we lost two police officers in the line of duty.
“President Obama has inspired me to serve my community with its best interests at heart. Although I will miss his presence in the White House, his example makes it easy for me to say we can make Wyandotte County a stronger, healthier and safer community.”
—Mayor/CEO Mark Holland of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.
Willis Simpson, the general manager of Arthur Bryant’s, recalled Obama’s July 2014 visit to the famed barbecue restaurant. The Secret Service arrived about 20 minutes ahead and announced the president was coming; if they had called, no one would have believed them.
“It was kind of surreal, you know, the president of the United States,” Simpson said. “He has a dynamic personality.”
Simpson got a chance to talk to him but can’t remember what they talked about.
“I just remembered, he said, ‘I know that’s right,’ whatever we were talking about,” Simpson said. “I thought, ‘The president is cool.’ ”
Obama ordered a plate of short ribs. Simpson made sure Obama was served the best set of ribs in the restaurant. Obama’s staff made sure the food was at the proper temperature for safety.
Obama then reached into his pants pocket and paid for the order and several others with several $50 bills, Simpson said.
“I don’t know why, but that really stood out to me,” he said.
Terrence Wise, a fast-food worker and a leader in the Stand Up KC movement that’s aligned with the Fight for $15 labor movement, met Obama at the White House Worker Voice Summit, a labor forum, in October 2015.
“I was intimidated but eerily calm,” Wise said. “He was larger than life, but when we were in the room, he was open and candid.”
Wise said the president told him how it bothered him that “ ‘people get up every day and go to work and work hard and don’t make enough to feed their families. But as long as you keep doing what you’re doing, you can make change. I can’t do it by myself, but you can if you keep going.’ ”
“When he came here about three years ago my father was holding my daughter Alayna and when the president saw her, he just came and grabbed her and started carrying her around. ... When I took a picture with him 2 years ago at the CBC-ALC he gave me dap like he was one of the fellas in the barbershop. And Mrs. Obama said to my father, ‘Congressman, your son is so handsome.’ Of course, I went back and told my wife.”
—Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City and son of U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver
Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston was in City Hall on a hot day in July 2014 when she got a surprise phone call from Police Chief Kevin L. Chrisman saying that President Obama was on his way to downtown.
“So, of course, we all flew down there,” Johnston said.
Bomb-sniffing dogs and men with large guns were already doing a security sweep of downtown when Johnston and other city workers arrived.
“They wouldn’t let anybody out, and they wouldn’t let anybody in,” Johnston said. “The pizza place (restaurant) had quite a pile of pizzas that people weren’t able to get, so the Secret Service got a lot of freshly baked pizzas.”
Obama walked down Main Street and poked his head into some doors, visited the coffee shop and talked with several of the regular patrons.
Then it was Johnston’s turn to meet Obama.
“Instead of, ‘Hey how are you doing? How do you like being mayor?’ it wasn’t that at all,” she said. “It was really a more personable — ‘what are your challenges? Tell me about your town.’ ”
Parkville officials were looking at some possible flooding issues. Johnston explained to Obama how they planned for floods and how they worked with federal and state agencies on flooding issues.
“He asked questions and he asked followup questions,” she said. “I was not intimidated in the very least, because he was so easy to talk to that he just made you feel comfortable. He was just another person doing his job and visiting a strange town that he had never been in.
“I got probably a good 15 minutes with him,” Johnston said.
His Secret Service tried to move Obama along by reminding him, “Mr. President, we have to move on, we have a plane to catch,” Johnston said.
Obama responded: “ ‘No, I want to go into this place and this store,’ ” she recalled.
He stayed and talked to several business owners before leaving.
“We got a big kick out of it,” she said. “He’s tall, very tall, and he is always smiling.”
“Shortly after our motorcade arrived at a London hotel in 2008, I met him for the first time as we crowded onto a freight elevator with our (security) agents. I’ll never forget the intentional, strategic, thoughtful way he welcomed me to the team. It was a bellwether for the memorable way he and the first lady treated all of us in the years to come.”
— Roshann Parris, founder and CEO of Parris Communications in Kansas City. Parris had worked for Hillary Clinton and then became a part of the Obama public relations team.
John Beaudoin first met then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in April 2007. At the time, Beaudoin was the publisher and editor of two Iowa newspapers: the Logan Herald-Observer and Woodbine Twiner. Meet-and-greets between journalists and political candidates were common, Beaudoin recalled recently, as they vied for coverage in the lead-up to the Iowa caucus event in early 2008, the first presidential nominating contest in the nation.
Beaudoin wasn’t in awe of candidate Obama, “but I was certainly impressed with his charisma, his candor and his willingness to literally try and go person-to-person in Iowa to win their support,” he wrote in an email.
Beaudoin interviewed Obama twice in 2007. The first interview was held at a public library in Onawa, Iowa. The second came during the Dunlap Livestock Auction.
At the time, Beaudoin didn’t realize the gravity of those interviews.
“It was after I moved back to Kansas City in 2009 that I realized just how significant those interviews were and how fortunate I was to talk to him,” Beaudoin wrote, adding that he savors the first interview most, “when (Obama) was still very new, very raw and extremely relaxed.”
Now the president of KC Communications & Media Matters, a public relations and marketing firm in Lee’s Summit, Beaudoin knows the ins and outs of interacting with the media. Beaudoin wrote that during his interviews with Obama and through observations of his presidency, the 44th president displayed a keen ability to engage with others.
“When we spoke, I felt like I had his attention,” Beaudoin wrote. “That is one trait I have noticed over and over watching him in other interviews, with the press corps, even with kids at schools or in other one-on-one encounters — your words are important to him.”
“I met Barack Obama in 2004, before he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and we became friends. When I endorsed his presidential candidacy a few years later, I reminded folks around the country who wondered who he was that I knew him and knew his values because he was raised by Kansas women — his mother and his grandmother — and I know Kansas women.”
—Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who served as Health and Human Services secretary in Obama’s administration
Before there was a President Barack Obama, Kansas City resident Eze Redwood, 30, stood in what he called “a moment of darkness, a midnight” brought on by the Great Recession. His job in the financial sector suddenly had disappeared. He had to sell oil changes door-to-door to pay the rent.
Redwood said he saw Obama’s election as the culmination of years of preparation and months of political campaigning. It instilled in him a personal confidence that he said was widely felt by other African-American men.
“He shattered a ceiling that we felt like was going to be there forever,” Redwood said. “It was a symbol for being able to accomplish anything. You really had no excuse.”
Redwood’s own resulting life campaign has led him back to an early entrepreneurial bent. He’s a partner in Wings Cafe with his family. He was one of two Google Fiber fellows in Kansas City. He also founded Twenty30CEO and Rise Fast, which is holding a summit Jan. 31 to help young professionals develop their careers.
“It’s brought a different look for the U.S. Not very many presidents are very vocal about their musical taste. To see Obama play basketball with the top stars in the NBA and stuff like that, that’s pretty cool to me. What he’s accomplished in these eight years has been big for the United States, so I’m going to be sad to see him leave.”
—Kevin Puryear, a Blue Springs South graduate and Missouri men’s basketball sophomore forward
Rosie Garcia-Muquiz of Kansas City scored free tickets to see Obama at the Uptown Theater when he visited Kansas City on July 30, 2014.
“I will never forget how calmly he handled the large crowd,” she recalled. “Luckily, I was close enough to the podium that I got to shake his hand and share a smile and a ‘Thank you for all you do.’ I almost fainted.”
Garcia-Muquiz said Obama has also been an inspiration for her 8-year-old son, Christopher, who is half Mexican-American and half African-American.
“I tell him often, ‘Mijo, you can be anything you want to be.’ ”
Jason Grill, senior adviser at Parris Communications, is a former Missouri state legislator who met Obama in 2007. Grill was invited along with five or six politicos to a very small meeting with then-candidate Obama at the downtown airport in Kansas City. They spoke for about 30 to 45 minutes.
“He was so personable. He asked me more questions about what was going on in my district than what I asked of him,” Grill said. “He came across as a genuine human being. We talked about baseball. We talked about KC.
“When it was time to leave, we were going to take pictures with him. I had on a sports coat, and he was just in his shirt sleeves. He asked me if I wanted him to go to his plane and get his sport coat for the photo. I said no, of course. He just seemed so normal, so genuine. I left that meeting ready to go to bat for him. I felt lucky to have met him.”
Jason Klumb, who until December was the regional director for the General Services Administration in Kansas City, planned to pay Obama a visit when the president gave a speech at the University of Kansas in January 2015.
The evening before, Klumb told his two children, ages 7 and 9 at the time, to come up with a drawing that he could show Obama. Klumb’s son, Max, the younger of the two, drew a portrait of the president. His daughter, Sofia, drew a similar rendering, but added a message.
“Equal pay, thanks to President Obama.”
The message reflected one of Obama’s priorities, which he reflected in his State of the Union address in 2014 and again in 2015.
When Klumb showed Obama the portraits, Obama took out a Sharpie and added a message of his own.
“To Max and Sophia, thanks for the great art! Barack Obama.”
“He was a very easy-going guy, despite all the challenges of the job,” Klumb said. “Very comfortable and cordial and courteous, and of course, kind. It was kind of him, instead of saying “Hey, thanks,” he sent them a note that they will remember forever.”
Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, met Obama when he was a first-term U.S. senator from Illinois.
Obama catapulted as a possible presidential candidate after giving the now-famous fiery speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.
Fast forward to months later, while in Washington, D.C., during for an National Urban League Legislative Policy Conference, Grant and three board members bumped into a member of Obama’s Senate staff in an elevator at the Hart Senate Building.
There was no promise that Obama would be available to see them, but they were welcomed to wait in his conference room, Grant recalled.
As the Kansas City group talked to the staff member about the Urban League and race relations, they got a surprise when Obama walked into the room.
“I was like a teen girl at a rock concert,” Grant said. “He wasn’t even president yet. He walked in the room and I said, ‘Oh my God.’
“And then I couldn’t say anything,” she said. “I actually could not talk.”
The Kansas City board members were equally in shock but for a different reason.
“They told him (Obama), ‘Look at what you did, we have never seen her speechless,’ ” Grant said. “I forgot what he said but he hugged me and we took a picture.
“He was so cool,” she said.
Alicia Walsh had the rare experience of once hosting Obama in her Kansas City home.
It was in 2008, and he chose her family’s home on Brookside Boulevard to watch his wife’s speech at the Democratic Convention in Denver.
“We were so lucky to have that experience,” she said. “He was so engaging and warm. It was such an exciting time for our family.”
He even wrote notes for her daughters, excusing them from being late for school the next day.
The family was later invited to attend Obama’s inauguration in Washington.
“It was like a fairy tale,” she said.
His presidency has helped her family in a practical way, providing insurance through Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.
She believes he has done an amazing job.
“I have never felt so proud of a president,” she said.
In 2009, Teresa Chaurand’s husband, Enrique, was asked by the then-nominated Secretary of Labor (Hilda Solis) to be part of her team. Her family moved from Kansas City to Washington, D.C., shortly after. Teresa Chaurand was appointed as special assistant to the president in July 2011. She is currently serving as the director of Intergovernmental Affairs and External Partnerships at the Peace Corps.
Chaurand shared a memory with The Star on her last day as an appointee.
“I had been in my position for not even two weeks when I was asked to staff a group of 12 appointees to meet with the president in the Roosevelt Room. We met periodically with senior appointees from the agencies in recognition for their service, but also to allow them time with the president to talk about their work in their respective agency.
“When the meeting began, the president hadn’t yet joined and it was being led by Denis McDonough, chief of staff. We had already spent 30 minutes going around the room talking with the appointees when the president entered the room. This was my first time seeing the president up close and personal. I was particularly struck by how he seamlessly joined the conversation. I know that he was briefed on the individuals in the room, but not what they would be discussing. He picked up right away engaging in discussions on the status of a variety of issues as if he had been in the room the entire time.
“This memory sticks with me because it was a true illustration of how knowledgeable he was on the progress of each agency; he also spent quite a bit of time asking how the appointees were doing and expressing his gratitude for their commitment to his administration. What most people don’t know is how much he invested in the development of his appointees, he knew the importance of building a pipeline of public servants ready to serve in future administrations.”
Staffers Tony Rizzo, Steve Vockrodt, Mark Davis, Matt Campbell, Katy Bergen, Dave Helling, Donna McGuire, Tod Palmer, Rustin Dodd and Max Londberg contributed to this report.