By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
A year ago today, Sharon O’Hara was at Boeing’s Everett factory when she heard a question she will never forget.
“He said, ‘Is Sharon O’Hara in the audience?’” the Arlington woman recalled.
Who was asking? O’Hara still can’t believe that it was President Barack Obama.
On Feb. 17, 2012, Obama toured the Everett plant, praising Boeing and its workers for bringing “jobs and manufacturing back to America.” He called the 787 Dreamliner “the plane of the future.”
O’Hara, 59, didn’t just happen to be in the audience. That took some doing. And meeting Obama last February wasn’t her only close encounter with the president. Again in May, O’Hara had the chance to see Obama, that time in Washington, D.C.
It all happened because of O’Hara’s reaction back on Dec. 15, 2009, when the 787 made its first flight.
An executive office administrator for leaders of Boeing’s 787 team, O’Hara was interviewed by Boeing’s Lori Gunter about seeing a Dreamliner take off in Everett for the first time. “I had goose bumps and tears,” O’Hara said that day. “We said we would do it and we did.”
Before Obama’s trip to Everett, the White House took notice of O’Hara’s pride in the new airplane.
O’Hara, though, had been battling cancer and wasn’t working in early 2012. Suffering from multiple myeloma, she had undergone a stem-cell transplant on Oct. 13, 2011.
“I was on a leave of absence,” said O’Hara, a 21-year Boeing employee who is now back at work. During her leave, O’Hara had a call from a Boeing office executive telling her the White House would be calling her — and that it wasn’t a joke.
Obama, she learned, wanted to use her quote from the day of the first 787 flight in his speech at Boeing. When the White House did call, she told them she wasn’t invited to the president’s appearance. “They said, ‘Consider yourself invited,’ ” O’Hara recalled.
“I’m an Obama fan anyway, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he were Democrat or Republican, black, white, yellow or green — it was the president of the United States of America,” she said.
She got to sit with VIPs at the Boeing plant, and after Obama asked “Is Sharon O’Hara in the audience?” she was able to meet him and pose for pictures. Her daughter, Boeing worker Veronica O’Hara, was also there.
“He smiled, gave me a great big hug, and kissed me on the cheek,” she said. “His smile is just extraordinary.”
Not long after Obama’s visit, O’Hara tried going back to work. With her weakened immune system, she contracted pneumonia and needed more time off. When she got another call from Boeing, she thought it would be about working from home.
Instead, the caller asked “Are you sitting down?”
It was a Boeing engineer calling to tell her she had been invited to the White House for the president’s signing of the Export-Import Bank Reauthorization Act of 2012.
The act is helpful to Boeing because it aids U.S. exporters by providing financial assistance to foreign entities that buy American-made products. The bill Obama signed May 30 extended the mandate through September 2014, and raised its financing cap to $140 billion.
“Our middle class was created by workers who made and sold the best products in the world,” Obama said at the signing ceremony.
O’Hara stood right behind the president when he said those words. She credits Boeing’s Megan Ryder with quickly putting her back on full-time status so she could make the trip.
She flew first-class on a red-eye flight. In Washington, D.C., she met with Tim Keating, a Boeing senior vice president of government operations.
The signing was supposed to be in the Rose Garden. Weather didn’t cooperate, O’Hara said, so it was held in Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the West Wing of the White House. After the signing, O’Hara did some sightseeing and took a White House tour.
“Here I am, a cancer survivor, a middle American,” she said. When Obama greeted her, she reminded him they had met before. She recalled him saying, “I remember. How is your health?”
“With all the people this man meets, he remembers the ordinary people. That’s what I love about this president,” O’Hara said.
And the 787, now grounded after incidents involving its lithium-ion batteries, what does O’Hara think about that?
“I still think it’s the best airplane out there,” she said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.