By Bill Sheets Herald Writer
There were many moments of wonder and awe for Snohomish County residents who attended the second inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama.
Edmonds native Heidi Bennett and her younger brother Jeremy, however, probably had the best seats.
As performers who sang before Monday’s ceremony, they were seated behind the president, ex-presidents and other dignitaries for Obama’s swearing-in and speech — looking down the National Mall at the sea of onlookers.
“It was so breathtaking,” said Heidi Bennett, 21, who along with Jeremy attends Lee University, a small Christian college in Cleveland, Tenn. Their choir, the Lee University Festival Choir, was one of several groups to perform.
“It was absolutely amazing seeing all those people,” said Jeremy Bennett, 19. “Seeing all those famous people a few yards away from us and seeing all the way to the Washington Monument was an incredible experience.”
By most estimates, the crowd was less than half of what it was for Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, when the total pushed 2 million people. Still, roughly 1 million people were present.
“I’m excited to be here. There’s a lot of good energy,” said Janice Greene of Everett, president of the Snohomish County NAACP, shortly after the president’s speech. She applied to attend through U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen’s office.
With the nation’s first African-American president being sworn in for the second time on a holiday commemorating the birthday of the nation’s greatest civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., the day had extra significance for Greene.
“It’s kind of a morale booster,” she said. “He (Obama) talked about bringing people out of poverty, helping everybody have a chance to be successful with education to help propel them forward. Everybody has the right to health care, those things that are basic human rights. I think he’s getting started on a good note.”
Greene believes Obama will have a chance to do more for civil rights in his second term than in his first.
“Hopefully there’s not as much tension as last term,” she said. She noted that Obama stressed cooperation in his speech, “that it’s going to take us all as citizens to participate and move it forward.”
Melissa Webster, who teaches government and geography at Cascade High School in Everett, led a group of more than 30 students, family members and other teachers to the inauguration, as she did in 2009.
“It was awesome,” she said both of the experience and the president’s speech.
“I thought it was a really well-articulated speech. He talked about the need for people working together, he talked about a balanced budget, so there was a message there for everyone. We’ve got some work to do.”
Webster said her group sat about a quarter-mile away from the podium — fairly close by inauguration standards.
“It was a lot more organized and the crowd control was better,” she said, than four years ago. “The stepped-up security was nice.”
Army Sgt. 1st Class Meghan Malloy, a Camano Island native, was scheduled to participate in coordinating military ceremonial support for the inauguration.
Malloy, 32, graduated from Stanwood High School in 1998 as Meghan Slater. She’s a member of an elite team from the Department of Defense.
Malloy is active on a sub-committee of 11 people in charge of the 1,541 service members who were scheduled to line the inaugural parade route through Washington, D.C.
Webster’s group included 25 students from Cascade High and four more from Jackson High School in Mill Creek.
“It was very moving, just seeing so many people gathered in one place for a single event. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Kellen Polk, a 17-year-old junior at Cascade, shortly after the ceremony ended. “The presentation overall was very well put together. They did a good job of introducing all the important people. The performances themselves were very well done.”
Polk praised the president’s speech, as did Tyler Whitman of Everett, 16, a sophomore at Jackson High.
“I’m really into politics,” he said. “Just being here to watch this historical event was really cool.”
The group arrived in the nation’s capital Friday, giving them the weekend to tour sites such as the Capitol, Ford’s Theater, the Smithsonian Institution and Arlington National Cemetery.
Based on essays they submitted at their school, the students were given the privilege of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Also, Cascade history teacher Bill Stengele got a chance to visit the grave of his great-grandfather, Harry Everest Stengele II, a World War I Navy veteran who is buried at Arlington.
Years ago, when Stengele was in the eighth grade, he was on a school trip to Washington, D.C., but was told there wasn’t enough time to visit the grave.
This time, the visit was built into the trip.
“That was very moving for him,” Webster said.
Heidi and Jeremy Bennett’s choir was invited to sing at the inauguration by Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the senior senator from the state.
Altogether, 350 students sing in seven ensembles at Lee University. The event was able to accommodate only 200, however, so the participants were selected by criteria such as commitment and musical ability.
“My brother and I were so thrilled when we found out we made the list,” said Heidi Bennett, a senior majoring in psychology.
The choir sang six numbers, including “This Land is Your Land,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and the finale, “God Bless America.”
On the last number, she said, members of the choir were so moved by the experience that “a lot of people around me just started crying as they were singing.”
Jeremy Bennett, who majors in telecommunications, said he was surprised to make the list as a freshman and was glad he got to share the experience with his sister.
“It was really surreal hearing the president’s voice — hearing his voice echo through the National Mall and realizing I was really, really there,” he said.
“It was a great experience and I was very grateful that I had that experience.”
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; email@example.com.