April 30, 2004: Diary Entry
Veronica Slajer gave me a ticket to an Executive Order Signing Ceremony in the Old Executive Offices. I didn’t know what to expect, but figured I may as well see what this adventure would end up being.
I met up with Stephanie Irwin and Willie Hensley to attend the event together.
Veronica Slajer arranged for us to attend together. She is an awesome lady from Alaska that founded and operates a political advocacy organization focused on, among other issues, Alaska Native Fishery Rights.
I hadn’t met Stephanie before, she’s from Southeast Alaska and an Ivy League student getting ready to start graduate school.
Willie Hensley is one of the Alaska Native leaders that influenced the creation of the largest indigenous land right settlement on this globe; the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. He was a keynote speaker at my graduation from the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) back in 1987.
We went through security, which is no small fete when entering the President of the United States Executive Office Building.
The venue was a theatre-style room with a stage that had a simple podium. We found a place to sit in the tiered seating. The walls were covered with heavy drapes and everyone was very quiet.
I whispered to Stephanie and Willie, “Do you think the President will actually be here? I thought this was a press conference by his staff about the Executive Order He was signing.” They both agreed that they weren’t sure what to expect.
People shuffled around in front of the stage. It was an elongated wait, especially not really knowing what to expect.
Then our great Senior Senator for Alaska came in through the side entrance and took his place in the front row. He turned and waved at us.
I was surprised he waved and then I remembered: I am sitting with Willie Hensley! What a perk to be in such iconic company. Our Senator waved at us!
The lights were turned down. A spotlight came on.
An announcer with a loud, clear voice – bellowed:
“Ladies and Gentlemen! The President of the United States, George W. Bush!”
I jerked my head toward Willie. I asked Willie, “Is he really coming out here?” Willie was just as shell-shocked as I and responded that he didn’t know.
I still get goosebumps recollecting this event.
George W. Bush came through those drapes and walked in that spotlight; to that single podium, on that stage.
I couldn’t breathe and I don’t know if I blinked.
Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of what he said, because I am swimming in disbelief that this was happening, and I was witnessing it.
The one thing I do remember him saying was how he appreciated a Tribal Leader in the audience and how he got to know her. The President of the United States spoke about her commitment to Native Issues and told us about her father, who was an esteemed and well-respected Leader.
He looked at her and said something along the lines of: “She and I have a lot in common. We both got to be here today. And we both got here because of our daddies!”
The audience erupted in clapping and hooting to his humorous statement. Keep in mind, I just butchered his joke, which was much better than what I attempted.
As suddenly as this event began, it ended.
Willie, Stephanie and I were still sitting in our seats when the overhead lights of the theatre jolted us out of our stupor.
As we shifted around and stood up, Senator Stevens turned and waved hello to Willie. The President at that same time was making his way off the stage and heading toward Senator Stevens.
Our Senator waved the three of us down to him. The Secret Service stopped us, but the Senator gestured to them to let us through.
Then there I was. Standing in a small, intimate circle with Senator Stevens, and President George W. Bush.
President Bush thanked Senator Stevens for attending and said the event was more prestigious because of his attendance. Our Senator, in turn, introduced us to the President.
I have met my share of celebrity-status people. I am not usually at a loss for words. But the President asked me something. I don’t know to this day what he asked. I don’t believe I answered. I don’t know if I spoke out loud or just stood there literally in shock.
I barely remember our picture being taken.