Tears, smiles, and thank yous from crowd: ‘We had to be here’

Supporters watch a video presentation before President Barack Obama gives his presidential farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

They came in joy, in sadness and in pride.

They came to bear witness to “the end of an era.”

They came to hear President Barack Obama say goodbye — and to say goodbye themselves.

Natalia Arguilles was the third person in line Tuesday afternoon when security let the public into McCormick Place for Obama’s farewell speech.

“I’m happy, because I think we’ll get to see him,” said the nine-year-old, among seven members of her family who’d gotten up at 5 a.m. to ensure they’d get coveted seats in the very first row reserved for the public.

“We were literally first in line this morning,” said her aunt, Consuelo Arguilles, 33, of Bridgeport. “This is a historic moment. We had to be here to wish President Obama a very fond farewell, to say thank you, acknowledging him for the last eight years of his contributions to this country and to let him know that he did a great job. I hope he knows that. And I hope this event will let him know that.”

Natalia Arguilles, 9, and her aunt, Consuelo Arguilles, 33, of Bridgeport. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

Like the Diaz-Arguilles family, so many of the thousands who turned out to bid Obama so long began lining up in Tuesday’s wee hours, eyes on the limited seating. They began filing in just before 5 p.m., making mad dashes for chairs, as volunteers tried to keep things orderly.

They came, every race and age, expressing the same sentiments: joy at the ability to itness history, and sadness at the history they were witnessing.

“I brought my 9-year-old and 13-year-old daughters,” said Anisa Diaz, 42, who with her best friend made the trek from Racine, Wisconsin. “I’m just very grateful as an American first, and as a African-American, to know that there is a person such as him that exudes this hope, that I can have pride in, and that my kids can follow after. When the next president comes in, they’re going to have those same expectations for that president as they did for this one, because he had so much integrity.”

Ellani Diaz, 9, Tenisha Diaz, 13, and their mother, Anisa Diaz, 42, of Racine. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

Her 13-year-old, Tenisha, who wants to be a marine biologist when she grows up, said she wanted to see Obama because of the lesson she said he taught her: “That anybody can accomplish their goals in life, it doesn’t matter their race, age, or anything.”

And the sentiments were the same for those who have worked for Obama since the beginning, as campaign volunteers, staffers from his days as state senator, or part of his presidential Cabinet. These were the folks with a reserved seating area, fronting the stage before the public seating section.

“I’ve been working with the Obama presidency since ’07, right after he announced for presidency. I worked all the major events in 2007 and 2008, 2011 and 2012,” said Clarinda Valentine, 62, of Austin. “Tonight is a sad night. It’s like an end of an era. So I got my Kleenex, and I’m ready for the tears to come. But it’s a joyous night, because we accomplished so much.”

Obama volunteer Clarinda Valentine, 62, of Austin. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

Former Obama senior advisor David Axelrod, chief strategist on his presidential campaigns, agreed it was “the end of an era.”

“It’s a sad night. I’ve been on this journey with him for a very long time, and I’m happy for him because he gets to get on with the rest of his life,” Axelrod said. “I’m sad for the country, because I think he’s been a great leader, and brought dignity and integrity to that office that people will miss. But you know, that’s democracy. The great thing about this is that we don’t have kings. And you know that when you sign up for the job.”

At 7 p.m., the program kicked off with singer Eddie Vedder performing a solo set and then with the Chicago Children’s Choir. At 7:50, the crowd began chanting, a throwback from the Obama campaigns in anticipation: “Fired up! Ready to go!”

Former Obama White House senior adviser David Axelrod | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

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