Hudson woman rides inauguration train to D.C. with first family
Even if Elizabeth Wehrman didn't make it to the inauguration of President Barack Obama, her family did, including her daughter, Anne Stoefen of Hudson.
Stoefen, a nurse with the Veterans Hospital in Minneapolis, and her sisters and father were among the select group that made the trip to Washington, D.C., on board a train with the Obamas and the Bidens.
The invitation came directly from Obama who had worked with Elizabeth Wehrman when he was a state senator and she was a "street nurse" in Chicago.
Elizabeth Wehrman and her husband, Randy, lived in Iowa when Obama declared his candidacy, and she was quick to volunteer to help get him elected. But soon after, she became ill and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007. Obama called her shortly after a surgery and urged her to get well and get back to the campaign.
"She tried," said Stoefen, "but she died on October 14. She got her absentee ballot in the mail that morning, cast her vote and died that afternoon. It was like she was waiting for that. I'm not sure her vote counted but it counted to her and to us."
Obama called Randy Wehrman, who lives in LeClaire, Iowa, to offer his condolences to the family and asked if there was anything he could do. Stoefen recalls that her dad told Obama to do two things -- win the election and get on top of this cancer thing. Then candidate Obama said he thought he could do both.
Elizabeth and Randy Wehrman were opposed politically most of their lives, but she did get her husband to vote for the Democrat this time around. He was asked to introduce Obama at a rally of Republican supporters in Davenport, and his wife "snuck" out of the hospital to be there.
In early January, Obama tracked Randy down to Texas where he was visiting friends and told him he wanted him to be among the "18 everyday Americans" to join him on the train ride to Washington for the inauguration. "Dad said he would, but he would have to bring his daughters. He told Dad that was already taken care of and we were all going," said Stoefen.
Stoefen remembers crying when she got the news about the trip and knowing that it was their mother who had earned the privilege for them. The all-expense-paid trip began with a flight to Philadelphia the weekend before the inaugural. The other riders included people who, like Elizabeth Wehrman, had come in contact with Obama and were remembered by him, including a woman who worked on behalf of battered women whose sister had been murdered. Another rider had taken on Goodyear in a labor discrimination suit and won and yet another rider was the train conductor who had been traveling with Vice President Joe Biden for the more than 30 years he had been commuting between his Delaware home and the capital.
Obama came into the train car where Stoeffen and her family were riding and visited with them individually. He hugged her father. He asked Stoeffen about her job and she told him. "I said there were some things that needed fixing in the VA. But I said since I was getting a new boss, like the rest of the country, I was hopeful things would change. He got the message."
Stoeffen said Michelle Obama invited everybody back into the dining car to share her birthday cake. She cut the pieces big and told Stoeffen, who is over 6 feet tall, that she was "just the right height." Michelle, at 5 feet, 11 inches, is almost as tall in heels.
"I had to agree with her ... She was very easy to talk with and really went out of her way to make us feel welcome and comfortable," said Stoefen. "She is beautiful from the inside out. She talked about Mom and what an impact she had made on Barack. That meant so much."
Mrs. Obama also thanked Stoeffen for the Webkins her twins, Jackson and Joie, 7, had sent along for the Obama daughters. "She said they loved Webkins and was touched that the kids thought about her girls."
Party of a lifetime
The train trip took 12 hours, and the travelers used Saturday and Sunday to recuperate and do a little sightseeing. They were at the Lincoln Memorial in VIP seats for a star-studded concert Sunday night. "There were famous people everywhere you looked," said Stoeffen.
On Monday the family participated in the National Day of Service by going to a health collective where the staff works with women who have HIV/AIDS. "We talked to the people there. It's something my mom would have cared about."
They were up at 4 a.m. Inauguration Day and were in their seats near the capitol around 6 a.m. It was very cold, and Stoeffen admits to being a little disappointed with how far their seats were from where the president would be sworn in. "But the guy who was with us pointed out that there were about 1.3 million people who were standing behind us. That kind of put it in perspective. There is just no way to describe the scene and the mood. People were jubilant."
She also recalled that Caroline Kennedy had to wait for their group to go through security first. "How often does that happen?" said Stoeffen.
Stoeffen said the speech inspired her, and that seemed to be the reaction of most of the people around her.
"He said a lot of wonderful things, but I think what I will remember most is you can't shake a person's hand with a closed fist. We won't be able to get anything done if we keep fighting each other."
The group was among the VIPs who attended the first inaugural Neighborhood Ball. Again, celebrities were everywhere. Stoeffen noted that actor Denzel Washington ignored the group when he encountered them, but was more impressed when President Obama brought him over to the group and made the introductions himself.
"He and Michelle came to each of us and asked if we were having a good time. Well, let's see. We were on stage with the president and first lady and Stevie Wonder was at the piano and Hallie Berry was watching from down on the floor. Yeah, we were having a good time." This was when Wonder played "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" and President Obama invited the entire group to dance with him and Michelle.
Stoeffen said the best way to describe the Obamas is to say they are the "real deal" and she will never forget her inaugural experience.
"In and of itself the inauguration was important, but this time, with this man, it's something special. There's a presence about him, something so genuine, I saw it up close .... He inspires people to serve with a renewed sense of purpose. And not just in government but also in daily life with our families and friends and communities. People have been so disillusioned over and over again, but Obama is what he says he is. And he's committed to us all."