Obama Energizes Knox Grads
By Gayle Keiser
U.S. Senator Barack Obama moved with grace and ease beside Knox College President Roger Taylor through the crowd assembled outside Old Main before commencement last Saturday. This was the Illinois junior Senator's first return trip to Galesburg since a gathering held at Knox several days after his election in which he captured 70 percent of the statewide vote.
Both before and after the ceremony, Obama greeted well-wishers, signed autographs and posed for pictures with people in the crowd who received him with rare enthusiasm generally reserved for a rock star. "I guess you'd consider me a Senator Obama groupie," said Jean Anderson, a 1986 Knox graduate who came from Chicago to hear the Senator's speech.
Speaking on behalf of the graduates, Senior Class Speaker Daniel Lieberman acknowledged the Senator as "President Obama." Lieberman said in jest, "Just trying it out." Senator Obama listened with reserve. Since delivering the Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention last summer, it has been speculated that Obama will be the first African- American President.
The newly-graduated Lieberman, referring to himself as "no longer a student and now officially unemployed," then asked Obama to locate his resume taped under his chair. The Senator leaned forward and pulled paper from under the chair in which he was seated, stood and held up the resume. The audience laughed. Obama then folded the resume and slipped it inside his robe. The audience -- particularly the graduates -- cheered and applauded.
In anticipation of an unusually large crowd because of Obama's appearance at commencement, Knox provided extra seating on the South lawn of Old Main. Campus Security estimated the crowd exceeded 2,300. Graduation attendance would have been limited to the graduates, their families and individuals with tickets if the threat of rain had forced college officials to hold the ceremony inside the Fleming Fieldhouse.
Despite a downpour on campus less than an hour before the ceremony and ominous clouds coming and going throughout the proceedings, the event began and concluded behind Old Main, near the historic site of the 1858 Galesburg Lincoln-Douglas Debate.
Senator Obama made reference to Abraham Lincoln and Old Main in his speech. "We stand in the shadow of a lanky, raw- boned man with little formal education who once took the stage at Old Main and told the nation that if anyone did not believe the American principles of freedom and equality were timeless and all-inclusive, they should go rip that page out of the Declaration of Independence." Obama referred to Lincoln as an example of one person making a difference, and he encouraged the graduates to do the same.
Senator Obama is one of only five African-Americans to serve in the United States Senate. Three of these Senators have Illinois connections including Obama who was elected in November of 2004 to his first term, Hiram Revels who attended Knox College was elected as a Mississippi Senator in 1871, and Carol Moseley-Braun who represented Illinois from 1993 to 1999.
The other African-American Senators were Blanche K. Bruce who was elected to the U.S. Senate by the Mississippi state legislature and served from 1875 to 1881 and Edward Brooke who served two full terms in the Senate representing Massachusetts from 1967 to 1979.
"What will be my place in history?" Obama encouraged the graduates to ask themselves. Referring to the United States, the Senator said this is "a land where the question of our place in history is not answered for us, but by us."
Obama stated the measure of achievement in America is not perfection. "The true test of the American ideal is whether we are able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time. Whether we allow ourselves to be shaped by events and history, or whether we build and shape them. Whether chance of birth or circumstances decides life's big winners and lowers, or whether we build a community where, at the very least, everyone has a chance to work hard, get ahead, and reach their dreams."
A far less desirable choice is, Obama stated, "Social Darwinism, or every man and woman for himself or herself. It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford - tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their jobs - life isn't fair. It let's us say to the child born into poverty - pull yourself up by your bootstraps."
Speaking directly to the graduates, Obama challenged them to think not just about themselves but also about society in the choices they make in their lives. "You...can go chasing after the big house, and the nice suits, and all the other things that our money culture says you can buy. But I hope you don't....It asks too little of yourself....You need to take on the challenge because you have an obligation to yourself, because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation."
Obama acknowledged that the global economy poses great challenges for the future of this nation. "If we do nothing in the face of globalization, more people will continue to lose their health care...those Maytag workers will be joined in the unemployment life by any worker whose skill can be bought and sold on the global market."
To the contrary Obama continued, "This isn't us. This isn't how our story ends - not in this country. America is a land of big dreamers and big hopes....So let's dream. Instead of doing nothing or simply defending 20th century solutions, let's imagine what we can do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century."
In a statesman-like conclusion, Obama told the attentive audience, "Through out labor, and God's providence, and our willingness to shoulder each other's burden, America will continue on its precious journey toward that distant horizon and a better day."
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Following the Knox commencement, Senator Barack Obama met with a group of about eight men to discuss issues of local economic development. The meeting, which was scheduled by the Senator's staff for 10 minutes, lasted nearly 35 minutes behind closed doors in the Alumni Room of Old Main at Knox College. Senator Obama met privately with this reporter following the meeting and commented on it. "I think there is some very important potential rail projects with BNSF [Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad] that I want to see if we can encourage. They are still doing the studies for them," Obama stated.
The Senator was likely referring to the fact that BNSF has extended the length of its trains, therefore requiring an expansion of the rail yards to accommodate the longer trains. When the expanded rail capacity is accommodated, the potential is significant for other economic development at the local level. Obama acknowledged, "It could have a huge economic impact in the area."
Also discussed in the interview with the Senator were efforts being made to bring about foreign investments in Galesburg. "I think there has been some interesting work done by GREDA to enhance foreign direct investments in the community," Obama commented. "And I am very encouraged by the good work that's being done here on the local level." During the interview, he made clear his willingness to assist in both of these efforts to bring about local economic development. "So my job is to get federal dollars to help build up the infrastructure and to work as a partner with the local community," Senator Obama concluded.