Southern NH news photographer
President Obama visited Windham, N.H. on August 18th, 2012. I was part of the White House Press Pool. I have
shot photographed (I have been advised not use to use the term shot in this context) White House staff, cabinet members, foreign heads of state, church leaders and Facebook founders on assignment for an Ivy league university and lots of congressmen/ women, senators and presidential candidates for the paper but I never imagined photographing a sitting president in the small town I cover.
Here are a few of the images I took that day and the published story I wrote about preparations and local reaction. I had to wait until my 10 day exclusivity period with the paper expired before I could post.
I will post images not submitted for publication later, particularly the helicopter images which really are pretty cool.
Preparation Activities and Local Response to President Obama’s Speech
More than two hundred volunteers and staffers spent five days attending to every detail preparing for President Obama’s twenty-nine minute speech at Windham High School. Guests began arriving on Saturday morning at 8:30. Some walked up London Bridge Road from Route 111. Most took one of the shuttle buses from Golden Brook School or Windham Center School. Three words seemed to be spoken everywhere: Amazing, Unbelievable. Wow.
The Presidential visit was exciting for both residents and local politicians, regardless of political affiliations.
Obama’s Saturday speech is the second time Representative Mary Griffin (R) has attended a speech given by a sitting President. The first was President Clinton in his 1996 visit to Salem High School. She said, “Protocol dictates to me that if the President visits your town you go to see him out of respect. I may not agree with all his philosophy but he’s an excellent speaker with tremendous charisma. I’m not going to disagree with someone just because they are a Democrat.”
Representative Griffin, a Romney supporter, continued, “I’m against Obamacare but I am concerned about Paul Ryan and Medicare. I’ve got to look out for our seniors.”
She shared a story about a good friend of hers, a ninety-two year old woman with limited income residing in a managed care facility locally. Her inhaler medication recently doubled in cost from forty to eighty dollars due to what seniors refer to as “the donut hole”, Medicare Part D requirements. Often seniors are unable to afford required medications and any additional increase in costs are impossible for seniors to absorb.
Representative Walter Kolodziej (R) has a “high respect for the President of the United States and he visited our town so I went to pay my respects towards the office.” He agrees with Representative Griffin about Medicare being a critical topic. “Medicare needs modifications because it is not sustainable. No politician is going to do away with Medicare but it isn’t sustainable in its current form,” he said.
Selectman Kathleen DiFruscia (D) sat in the bleachers just behind the President. She said, “It was a wonderful experience to see a sitting President in such a charged and positive environment at our high school. When he smiles he just lights up the room. This was a wonderful opportunity to showcase our new high school and welcome the President to our little town. And everyone was so courteous. It speaks well for our town. I was also happy to see so many children. The students responsible for distributing water to guests handled it with such grace and dignity.”
The President’s visit would not be possible without the support of local officials and town and school administrations. The President acknowledged this valuable support following his speech with face to face greetings, personally thanking participants for their efforts on his behalf.
Doors opened to the public at 10:30 after security sweeps were completed. More than twenty-two hundred people waited in the sweltering gymnasium until the President began his speech at 1:07 P.M.
Windham Fire Chief Tom McPherson reported that twenty people were treated for heat-related issues. Eighteen were treated onsite and two were transported to the hospital where they were treated and released. “Considering the temperature and the number of people inside, twenty people treated is pretty good for the conditions we were dealing with,” he said.
The extreme heat was caused by a number of factors: the volume of people, the television and production lights and the need to keep the building closed for security purposes. A firm was contracted to bring in industrial air conditioners, which were set in place by Friday. Chief McPherson believes the units were struck by lightning overnight during the thunderstorms, rendering them inoperable. While crews were able to get one of the units partially functioning, it was not enough for the tremendous heat generated by the lights and number of people.
Logistics inside the gym during the event required creative solutions. “Due to the number of people wanting to see the President, it was tough to control the crowd to allow EMTs clear access. We made the decision to place the EMTs inside the gym, staged in different areas. The Secret Service worked with us to help clear aisle ways. That was a challenge. There were many more people than staff,” said Chief McPherson.
The Chief noted the Secret Service was very good to work with, both during the event and the throughout the preparation process.
Chief McPherson, Windham Police Captain Caron and Windham High School Assistant Principal Bob Dawson worked together with White House and campaign staff and the Secret Service to ensure a safe environment for visitors as well as the President. Chief McPherson and Captain Caron received a phone call on Monday morning to inform them of the President’s visit while White House and campaign staff greeted Assistant Principal Dawson in person, followed by a half dozen or so Secret Service agents.
News of Windham High School as the President’s choice for this campaign stop was not a complete surprise for Assistant Principal Dawson. ” New Hampshire is a very political state. We’ve had a number of political events since opening. I knew it was not out of the realm of possibility. The school is also very isolated, good for security purposes,” he said.
“It’s been such a whirlwind, an incredibly busy week,” Mr. Dawson said. He was impressed with how quickly and smoothly vendors responded and acted on requests for assistance. He noted Fairpoint’s quick response to a big job and an unusual request to run lines across vast distances to enable communications. “They understand the importance of getting things done quickly and well,” he said.
Being a school administrator just before the start of the school year is hectic enough but a Presidential visit adds unusual items to your “to-do” list, such as coordinating student sporting practices with the Secret Service to allow Presidential choppers and the massive Chinook helicopters an opportunity to practice takeoffs and landings. “Bill Raycraft was incredible rearranging schedules and team meetup spots for out of town student events,” said Mr. Dawson.
The Secret Service did accommodate the students’ schedules as best they could to allow regular school activities. Even with a Presidential visit, there is still the business of running a high school.
“I don’t think people know or appreciate how much goes into preparing for a Presidential visit,” said Windham High School Principal Tom Murphy.
Mr. Murphy, School Department Superintendent Henry LaBranche and School Board Chair Bruce Anderson greeted the President as he arrived via motorcade. The four men conversed about Windham’s outstanding dropout and graduation statistics among other educational topics. “It was a great moment, having a nice conversation with the President. Regardless of politics, he is the Commander in Chief. To converse with him for five minutes is pretty incredible. Great politicians are the ones that make you feel you are connecting with them. He’s fully there in the moment you’re talking with him. This is definitely one of the highlights of my career,” said Mr. Murphy.
The Windham Police Department worked closely with the Secret Service all week to ensure a smooth visit for all parties involved. One of the requirements was procuring and placing vast numbers of buses used to secure the boundaries for the helicopters and the motorcade, all of which were provided by First Student.
Captain Caron reported the Police Department escorted two people off the premises that were becoming frustrated with the long wait in the heat. There was a small contingent of Romney supporters, all of whom were well behaved. There were no arrests. He said, “This was a pretty big production. It went flawlessly, couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. Everyone from the Secret Service to White House and campaign staff to the locals are very pleased with how it went. I think we represented Windham very well.”
Chief McPherson said, “Everyone did a knockout job from the bottom up to see this event went without a hitch. Some may not respect the person or the politics but he is the sitting President and that is quite prestigious. As far as public safety is concerned officials don’t care if it’s a Democrat or Republication. Either way, it’s our job to make sure both residents and visitors are safe while they are here and safe when they go.”
“As a school we are not political. This town made a commitment to build a high school. We’ve been fortunate enough to host our Governor, the former Speaker of the House and United States Senators in our short existence. That we have actually hosted a sitting President of the United States is something to be proud of. We needed to do whatever we could to make sure they had a good impression of the school when they left and they did,” said Mr. Murphy.
Mr. Dawson said, “Everybody I spoke to from the White House to the Secret Service to the guests were thrilled. Heat was a factor. There was nothing we could do about that. Everybody was super happy. For me, I was pleased it went so well. For the people that wanted to come to see the President of the United States, this is perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity. For most people, this may never happen again.”
Mr. Dawson was part of a small group of people that was summoned to meet the President face to face following his speech. That group included eleven year-old National Anthem singer Emma Joanis and her parents and Maintenance Director Jeff Couture, who worked closely all week with the Secret Service, providing any help they needed. The President personally thanked Mr. Couture for everything he’d done, telling him he greatly appreciated it. Each was photographed with the President. “It’s one of those things you’ll never forget. It’s pretty phenomenal,” said Mr. Dawson.