A great day for Leroy

The story behind the story
By Daniel Dunkle | Apr 06, 2010
Photo by: Daniel Dunkle People in the audience at the Portland Expo Center on April 1 grin and applaud for Rockland's Leroy Peasley.

Portland — The April 1 visit of President Barack Obama to Portland was especially relevant to residents in the Midcoast.

Word arrived last week that Leroy Peasley of Rockland, who is going on 87, was going to be invited up on stage to lead the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.

A lot of people locally know Leroy in a number of different ways. He's an active member of the Knox County Democrats and a World War II veteran who fought with the Marines in the Pacific Theater.

I knew Leroy because I took some pictures of him singing and playing his guitar at St. Bernard's Catholic Church. Every week, he and a group of others perform music for the people eating at the soup kitchen.

So the night before the president came to Portland, Don Carrigan, a camera man from Channel 6, and I visited Leroy at his home on Barter Road. I've already written the story from that interview, but what didn't come through in the standard news story was that there was a lot of laughter during that interview.

The TV guys probably had a time of it editing out some of Leroy's colorful Marine vernacular, but Peasley is very quotable, as people all over the state and perhaps beyond would learn the following day.

Going to see the president is a process. I had to provide some information online about March 29 and then wait, biting my nails, to see if I would get press credentials to attend the event. There was a contact guy that I called several times to ask about it.

Finally, I got my e-mail confirmation and with GPS as my co-pilot, I left for Portland around 7:30 a.m. the next morning. The president was scheduled to speak at the Portland Expo Center at about 3:30 in the afternoon. I was supposed to be there by 10 a.m. to have my camera equipment checked by the Secret Service. Finding the center was easy. Finding parking was a lengthy process, but I finally made it there.

I went up to the desk toting a bag full of good camera equipment borrowed from Ken Waltz here at the paper. They told me that no one would be there to check my stuff until 1 p.m.

It was the typical reporter's lot: hurry up and wait.

I probably could have left for a few hours and done something else, but I didn't quite dare. So I took out one of the cameras and started recording what was going on. People were already waiting in line and had waited in line the day before for tickets to see the president. The atmosphere was pretty cheerful. Volunteers, many of them young and a few of them long-haired, started to work the area, holding signs in support of the president.

Lyman Moore Middle School art teacher Barbara Loring and her brother showed up with a massive mural of the president that her students had created.

Then a few of the Tea Party people showed up. Frank Giordano of Newport had a couple of signs with him. One said, "Obama and Congress are traitors to our Constitution." Many of the Obama supporters in the crowd gleefully pointed out that he had "traitors" spelled wrong, and he responded that it had helped him get more attention. Another sign of his said, "Yes, God will even forgive you Obama and Congress. I don't know about me!" While I think he was suggesting he didn't know whether he would forgive the president and Congress, his sign could have been taken to mean he didn't know if God would forgive him.

After I took a few pictures of Giordano, a man who had been waiting in line to see the president came up to me and asked me pointedly what news organization I was with. Then he argued that while hundreds and thousands were gathered in support of the president, the media would give attention to the relatively few who came to oppose the president, making it look like both sides were equal.

I heard the same argument made several times throughout the day. A similar one has often been made about global warming. The media is criticized for interviewing a few scientists who disagree with the majority of scientists on the issue, making it appear that both sides have equal weight.

So to make him happy, I'll point out that I observed more supporters than opponents at the president's visit.

The two sides did get somewhat confrontational. The Tea Party people were told that the "free speech area" was across the street. A few of them defiantly stood right in front of the Expo Center. They were then surrounded by people waving blue pro-Obama signs and drowned out by chants of "Yes we can! Yes we can!" At one point the police came and had a discussion with the two groups, but I didn't see any serious problems.

Over the course of the day, I heard it said several times by people that their side tended to be nicer than the other and didn't take things so far. My experience is that both sides tend to use hyperbole in describing the evils of their political opponents.

The president would say later that day, "Democracy is a messy business."

Finally, I found myself standing in line with a large gathering of other journalists, being screened to enter the Portland Expo Center. I felt a bit like the country mouse. Most of the others I talked to were from the Associated Press and the Portland Press Herald. All of the TV stations were there. The Boston Globe was there. Radio people were there. Guys carrying cameras with lenses as expensive as the down payment on my house groused about the security screening process.

A small, German shepherd-like dog came through and sniffed my camera. A security guy pulled the battery out and checked for hidden compartments. Then I was screened with a metal detector.

Once I was in, it was like a sigh of relief. I had made it to the big show, but there was still a lot of waiting to do. During the interim, I told the Associated Press guy next to me about Leroy. With nothing to do, some of the reporters started interviewing each other.

It's always interesting to see a crowd of news people together. I looked at everyone setting up and thought, not without a certain amount of affection, What a group of riffraff we are! There's a vibe that's hard to describe. Teachers have a teacher vibe. The engineers I used to work with at GE had an engineer vibe. News gatherers have their own culture. I wouldn't want to face that many of us, as the president does, every day.

I went up on the riser across from where the president would speak and found a hole between the TV cameras and photographers where I could stick my lens. As the crowd of people who had been waiting in line came in, the temperature in the room began to rise.

Eventually, there was a prayer from a reverend and they began the dog and pony show leading up to the president's arrival.

My lens tracked Leroy as he emerged from behind a blue curtain and made his way up the stairs. He was wearing his red hat and red jacket.

I didn't know what he was feeling at the time. Later on the phone he told me, "I was so tired from waiting there an hour and a half. I was thinking, I hope this gets over with soon."

He said he has had some health problems recently.

"When my turn came and I went up on that stage and I looked out over the thousands of people, boy did that do something for my spirits," Leroy said. "What a wonderful country we have and what wonderful people."

When Leroy spoke into the microphone, his voice was powerful. "This is the best day of my life!" he said.

The crowd went nuts. They loved him.

I overheard one of the TV reporters say as Leroy stepped down from the podium that it might be hard for the president to follow that. Of course, it wasn't. The crowd went haywire for Obama when he came out to speak, and he is a good speaker.

I sweated out taking the pictures. It's better than in the old days of film. Back then, I had no idea what I had until Rosie in the darkroom gave me a contact sheet. Now I can see a picture on the back of the camera and see how well it was exposed. However, I never really know if the picture is in sharp focus until I get back to the office.

When I had shot enough from the riser, I came back down to shoot from a different angle. I ran into the AP guy again and he said, "Your veteran was great!"

Leroy was famous.

Leroy said he got a chance to shake hands with the president twice. The Marine, who fought in Guam and buried the dead from Iwo Jima, said he asked the president how the Marines were doing in Afghanistan.

And he gave the president a picture he clipped from the paper of the president and his wife and children, hoping for an autograph. Leroy said the president doesn't sign the items at the time, but they are taken and mailed back to the owners later.

It's always a thrill to see the president. Seeing Leroy's moment made it that much better.

President Barack Obama takes off his jacket as he begins his remarks in Portland. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Leroy Peasley takes the stairs to the stage where he will lead the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Leroy Peasley of Rockland. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Leroy Peasley puts his hand over his heart. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
The Marine salutes the flag. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Frank Giordano of Newport, in the flag shirt, holds signs with Tea Party slogans outside the Portland Expo Center April 1 before President Barack Obama's visit. Obama supporters surround him chanting "Yes we can!" (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Another Tea Party sign. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
A staffer places the presidential seal on the podium. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
President Barack Obama gives an animated presentation. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Many in the audience were carrying cameras to record the event. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Men with dogs sweep the parking lot before the president's visit. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
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