Forced to Pass on a Front Seat to History

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ella Mae Johnson will be 105 when President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in next month. And she plans to be there.

"I won't be able to hear him. I may not be able to see him. But I can say . . . I was there and it was a moving affair," said Johnson, who will travel from Cleveland with her wheelchair and a nurse at her side.

The 150 seniors at Delta Towers Apartments in the District, meanwhile, took an informal vote on whether to go to the inauguration. The results? They decided to stay put for a viewing party in front of two big-screen televisions in the Northeast building, three miles from the White House.

"Honey, I don't want to be in all that crowd," said Malissa Winbush, a 92-year-old retired beautician who wears a "First Family" button of Barack, Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha on her gold-and-black sweater. "I'll look at it on TV. I've been to one, Kennedy's. It was cold, cold."

Senior citizens are torn between wanting to be present to watch a racial barrier fall and being realistic about their physical barriers.

Officials are warning that Inauguration Day is typically cold. Anyone unprepared to stand for several hours in that kind of weather might be rethinking the swearing-in ceremony, parade and hoopla surrounding the event. Inconveniences include traffic gridlock, portable toilets and long lines.

"While we are planning the most open and accessible inauguration in history, not everyone has the ability to stand outside in the elements for a long period of time or to walk long distances, particularly seniors and children," said Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee. "We are counting on people to exercise common sense."

Common sense, yes, but balanced with a once-in-a-lifetime chance, said Johnson, whose birthday is Jan. 13, a week before the inauguration.

She was a social worker in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where one of her clients was Louise Stokes, mother of Louis Stokes, a former U.S. representative from Ohio, and ex-Cleveland politician Carl Stokes, the first black elected mayor of a major U.S. city.

When Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) learned of Johnson's desire to attend the inauguration from staff at Judson at University Circle, the retirement community where she lives, he gave her two VIP tickets to the swearing-in.

"I actually had the pleasure of telling Mrs. Johnson as she was sitting for lunch," said Robert Lucarelli, director of communications for Judson. "She was so excited, she gasped. She gave me a kiss, which I didn't expect."

Then reality set in, and staff began taking precautions.

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