The stories behind the visitors in the State of the Union galleries

January 24, 2011

They have been heroes of plane crashes. Child prodigies, in math and gospel music. Doctors, philanthropists, soldiers.

On the nights that changed their lives, when they were introduced to the United States with a nod from the president toward the gallery of the House chamber, all they had to do was smile.

"It was almost dreamlike. Am I really up here? What's going on? Is this really happening?" said Leonard Abess, a bank official whom President Obama pointed out in the House gallery in a speech to Congress in 2009. "I wouldn't trade anything for it."

These are the lives of the president's props.

Since 1982, presidents have used 38 everyday Americans as human illustrations at State of the Union addresses and other big speeches before Congress.

They have been chosen precisely because they are ordinary, a human representation of everything that is right and good about the country. But a presidential mention is, of course, extra-ordinary. It hasn't always been easy for these select few to return to the lives that won them recognition.

"The eyes of the world are on the president, and he's speaking about me," said Trevor Ferrell, 38. He was 13 in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan praised him for his work in helping the homeless in Philadelphia. "Kind of makes you feel like, you know, 'Gee, I'm still just a kid.' "

After Reagan mentioned him, Ferrell was invited to events in the Soviet Union and to help Mother Teresa in India. Groups asked him to join their boards of directors.

Ferrell said he lost touch with what drew him to the work in the first place: helping homeless people.

"I kind of lost that. And got caught up . . . into what people wanted me to do," he said. He eventually left the organization he started. He's now a UPS driver in the Philadelphia area and runs a thrift shop with his wife.

On Tuesday, Obama will give his second State of the Union address. Among those watching from the gallery will be Daniel Hernandez Jr., the intern who helped care for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) after she was shot in Tucson this month. A surgeon who operated on Giffords and the family of Christina Taylor Green, 9, who was killed in the attack, will also be there.

Other guests will include a soldier injured in Afghanistan and Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, whose bravery in Afghanistan made him the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor from any war since Vietnam. Also attending will be students honored for science research, and entrepreneurs who benefited from Recovery Act programs or the health-care overhaul, the White House said.

This flourish of presidential stagecraft was - like so many others - invented by Reagan. In his 1982 State of the Union, he looked up at the gallery and pointed out Lenny Skutnik, a low-level employee at the Congressional Budget Office.

"We saw the heroism of one of our young government employees," Reagan said. A jetliner had crashed into the 14th Street Bridge two weeks earlier and Skutnik had jumped into the icy Potomac River to help. "When he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, [Skutnik] dived into the water and dragged her to safety."

Reagan beamed at Skutnik, then saluted. Congress stood to applaud. Establishing a precedent, Skutnik looked both happy and terrified.

What goes through your mind in a moment like that? "Not a whole lot," Skutnik said. He stayed in government, worked his way up the ladder and recently retired after 32 years.

Others remember limousine rides, with wailing police escorts. A tap on the leg from Nancy Reagan, telling them to be calm. In 2009, Abess looked out during the speech and was surprised to see many lawmakers surreptitiously typing on their smartphones.

Their presidential mentions took just a few heart-racing seconds. And then they walked out into another life.

"They call me Subway Superhero. They call me Track Man," said Wesley Autrey, who was singled out by George W. Bush in 2007. Autrey had jumped onto a New York subway track to save a stranger who had fallen off the platform while having a seizure.

Bush's mention made him a national star. He was invited on talk shows, got tickets to the Super Bowl. Donald Trump gave him $10,000. Chrysler gave him a Jeep.

Some of those whose achievements have been highlighted have used the moment as a launch pad into public life.

Kristen Zarfos, a Connecticut surgeon, was praised by President Bill Clinton for her advocacy to improve treatment for women after mastectomies. After the speech, she lobbied for legislation to ensure that women would be allowed at least a two-day hospital stay after the breast surgery. Twenty states have done so.

"I wasn't even on the school board" before that speech, Zarfos said. "And now this is what I do."

Others returned to quiet lives, and their presidential mention receded to a pleasant memory. Clinton honored Chris Getsla, now 28, in 1997 for excellence on an international math-and-science exam. The president said students such as Getsla "prove that when we aim high and challenge our students, they will be the best in the world."

Or perhaps they will impersonate Paul McCartney in a Beatles cover band. Getsla dropped out of college and now plays at hotels and casinos in the Midwest.

S. Richard Cavoli was a college student when Reagan praised him for his scientific research in 1986. He is now a physician in Albany. He marks major events in his life - graduation from medical school, the birth of his son - by eating one Jelly Belly jellybean from a jar Reagan gave him.

The most troubling story began as one of the most touching.

In 1986 - alongside three other young people - Reagan singled out a D.C. gospel singer.

"We see the dream glow in the towering talent of a 12-year-old, Tyrone Ford," the president said. On television, a slight boy in a brown suit looked down nervously, then widened his eyes at Reagan's praise. "With God as your composer, Tyrone, your music will be the music of angels."

In news accounts from the time, family members said that the boy's behavior began to change after the speech and that he began skipping school. The Reagans helped him get into a strict boarding school in New York, but he continued to get into trouble.

In 1993, when he was 19, Ford was accused of stealing a car that belonged to former D.C. mayor Marion Barry. Since then, he has spent significant amounts of time in prison.

In August 2008, New York state officials say, Ford was arrested on charges of stealing wallets at movie theaters in Manhattan.

Today, Ford sings and plays the organ during church services at Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, a state prison 60 miles northwest of New York City. In his past two years in prison, he has never had a visitor, prison spokeswoman Linda Foglia said.

He does carry with him one indication of his life on the outside. Foglia said Ford once showed the chaplain a photo he keeps in his wallet.

In it is Ford, from all those years earlier, posing with Ronald Reagan.

fahrenthold@washpost.com thompsonk@washpost.com

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