By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; A01
They met for the first time inside the White House, three anonymous Americans who would be transformed into icons of President Obama's vision. There was a South Carolina teenager who had next to nothing, a Kansas mayor whose town had lost everything and a Miami banker who had $60 million to give away. They shared little in common except their status as honored guests of the president on Feb. 24, 2009, the night Obama planned to outline the goals of his administration in his first speech to Congress.
After a private tour of the White House, the three were driven to the Capitol by the Secret Service and ushered into seats next to the first lady. They sat in the balcony of the House chamber, surrounded by a dozen others who had been selected to personify the sweep of Obama's values: an injured soldier, a clean-energy innovator, a 78-year-old janitor, a studious young Muslim. But when Obama reached the climax of his speech, he introduced only three guests to the crowd.
Here was Leonard Abess, a bank president who had split his $60 million bonus among 471 employees, now flashing a thumbs-up while he received a standing ovation.
Here was Bob Dixson, a mayor rebuilding Greensburg, Kan., from a prairie of tornado devastation into a clean-energy hub, now beaming on national television.
Here was Ty'Sheoma Bethea, an eighth-grader who wrote to Congress about the decay of her 112-year-old school, now being hugged by the first lady.
"Their resolve must be our inspiration," the president said. "Their concerns must be our cause."
One year later, as Obama prepares to address Congress again in a State of the Union speech Wednesday night, the stories of his three guests remain instructive, even if their lessons have changed. The past year has challenged Obama's favored themes of togetherness, resiliency and hope. The economy remains unstable. Partisan contempt has intensified. Polls indicate that Americans are increasingly pessimistic. Obama instead has experienced a trial in patience, frustration and fatigue -- and so have his three guests.
"I see these headlines about the estimated Wall Street bonuses, and what it says to me is, 'Wait a minute! Didn't anybody learn their lesson?' " says the banker.
"What we need is more jobs, just like everybody else," says the mayor.
"Change takes a while," says the student.
* * *
Ty'Sheoma Bethea, who is now 15, received her invitation to the White House two days before Obama's speech, and most of Dillon, S.C., helped prepare her for the trip. She owned only jeans, so school administrators bought her two dresses. She splurged on a fancy haircut. A friend gave her new tennis shoes to wear on the airplane.
J.V. Martin Junior High School held an assembly to celebrate her return from Washington, and 300 students cheered when Bethea strutted in. She stood at the center of the gym, a converted boxing arena with a leaky ceiling and a wooden floor that buckles and slopes, and regaled classmates with stories of visiting the White House bowling alley and posing for pictures with the president. Obama had visited J.V. Martin twice while campaigning in South Carolina, once spending two hours touring the decrepit old building in 2007, and Bethea believed that her visit to Washington had confirmed the inevitable: "He's getting us a new school," she told her classmates.
During the next few months, Dillon, population 6,500, enjoyed a buoyancy it hadn't experienced in decades, residents said. A company from Chicago donated $250,000 worth of school furniture, surprising students by installing new desks at J.V. Martin in the middle of the night. Bethea gave speeches and accepted scholarships.
Architects and CEOs flew in from across the country to propose plans for a new school, each sketch more remarkable than the last. Gone would be the condemned auditorium with busted-out windows, the cold classrooms in mobile trailers and the dirt playing fields surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. Instead, school officials contemplated a $55 million proposal called the 21st Century Promise: a 100-acre "community campus" funded in part by government money, where the doors would remain open 24 hours to allow access to a natatorium, a community center and a laundromat.
"They said people would be coming from China to look at this school," said Todd Davis, mayor of Dillon.
"We were seeing these plans, and our eyes were about to burst out of our heads," said Ray Rogers, superintendent of Dillon schools. "We just wanted a working ceiling, and now we were talking about having the finest of this, the best of that."
But Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, hesitated to use federal stimulus money to build new schools, and Dillon struggled to procure a substantial loan in an unstable economy. With no immediate funding, CEOs stopped touring J.V. Martin, and architects moved on to other projects. In August, Dillon lost Bethea, its most public activist, after her mother, Dina, was laid off from her job at an ambulance manufacturer. Dina applied for a dozen jobs in the area before finding work in Atlanta, where Bethea now attends high school.
They left behind a town where the hopefulness of the past year feels like a much more distant memory. Dillon's unemployment rate is 18 percent. Its largest employer is a chicken processing plant that pays $9 an hour. The only stimulus money that arrived has gone to road resurfacing. All six of the town's schools remain in various stages of disrepair and, the mayor said, "all of them are about as eye-appealing as sausage."
"There was a lot of smoke, a lot of talk about getting a new J.V. Martin, but it's just gone nowhere," Davis said.
Instead of daydreaming about $55 million building designs, Rogers, the superintendent, now spends his days puzzling over a different set of numbers. He was told last month that his budget would be cut by about 15 percent next year, meaning he will have to slash administration jobs, furlough teachers and do away with substitutes.
His office is filled with scrapbooks that detail the history of Dillon's schools. One photo shows students arriving at J.V. Martin by horse and buggy. Another shows the building starting to age during the years when Rogers's father attended in the early 1940s. One near the back of the book shows Bethea, dressed up for the trip to Washington, ready to meet Obama.
"I always promised myself, before I retired, that I would get these kids a new school," Rogers said. "Maybe I still will. But every time I think we're headed in one direction, we end up back in the slow grind."
* * *
There is movement in Greensburg. Ever since a two-mile-wide tornado whipped through on May 4, 2007, killing 11 people and destroying 95 percent of the buildings, Bob Dixson's town has rebuilt at a manic pace, spending $20 million in federal money and almost as much in state and nonprofit donations.
Dixson, the mayor, rebuilt his house on the same foundation and moved back on Dec. 23, 2007, determined not to miss a Christmas at his home. Then came a new city hall, an arts center, a hospital, a John Deere dealership, a development of townhouses, 300 streetlights, a school, resurfaced roads, 10 high-tech windmills -- all of it not only new but environmentally sustainable. A statement. Sure, maybe wind and energy could destroy a town, but a town could also use wind and energy to become something superior.
"We want to be the model of sustainable living for the rest of the world," said Steve Hewitt, the city administrator.
So how come, on some days, what Dixson notices most is everything the government can never re-create in Greensburg? He moved there with his wife in 1985 because he was hired as postmaster, but he stayed because he loved how a town of about 1,500 could feel like an extended family. People were friendly. Neighbors liked to idle together on porches. The prairie of southwest Kansas was serene and quiet.
Now his life plays out to a soundtrack of construction trucks. There's no more local drugstore or variety store where he can shop and gossip, so he drives 30 miles to Pratt or 45 miles to Dodge City. Most of his neighbors are gone, with four of seven houses on his block still empty, and the town looks sparse with fewer than 800 residents.
"You try not to think about how it used to be, because that's something we're always going to miss," Dixson said. "We're just trying to fill in the town."
The only way to lure people back is with jobs, Dixson said, and the only way to create jobs is by bringing in employers. But in the continuing recession, that remains the one part of Greensburg's redevelopment that has not gone as scheduled, Dixson said.
The town once thrived on its land, but the tornado further damaged its agricultural base. Manufacturing companies that might have considered expanding have instead cut jobs in a downturn. Small businesses initially interested in Greensburg have been unable to procure loans.
The town rebuilt itself on sustainable energy assuming that the economy would reward its effort. In recruiting businesses, Hewitt, the city administrator, thinks he can make an unrivaled pitch: Here is a chance for good publicity, a chance to take part in an effort supported by the president, a chance to join a green community and stamp that label on your product.
"It's a hard time right now for anybody to say yes," Hewitt says. "We think we're about ready to land a company and bring in some jobs, but then reality hits. They don't have the cash. They can't get a loan. It makes for a long road."
Nearly one year after his visit to the White House, Dixson counsels Hewitt and everyone else to remain patient. Greensburg lost nearly all of its trees to the storm, and Dixson recently planted a few new ones in his back yard. He feels about the economy the way he feels about the trees. Growth is slow and uncertain. It requires faith.
"You just have to hope for progress and improvement," he said. "If we're lucky, we'll stick around long enough to see this through and be sitting in the shade."
* * *
Leonard Abess always planned to give his staff a lump sum of money before he retired. He refers to his employees as "extended family" and curses himself when he forgets any of their names. After he sold a majority stake in Miami's City National Bancshares late in 2008, one year into the recession and days after Obama was elected, Abess distributed his $60 million payout among current and former employees, deciphering amounts based not on job title but on years of service. Some janitors received more than vice presidents.
Television stations called Abess for interviews, and he tried to wave them off the story. White House officials invited him to Obama's speech, and he encouraged them to find somebody else. They called again two days later, insistent this time, and he accepted only after one final plea: "Guys," he said, "this was nothing."
Only when Abess was seated in the House chamber, basking in a standing ovation during an address in which Obama had ridiculed greedy bankers on Wall Street, did the significance of his gesture finally set in: For Obama's audience, Abess's $60 million gift was a reminder of benevolence, a place to see hope.
For Abess, it became a place to see despair.
After Obama's speech made him well known, Abess received hundreds of letters each day in his mailbox, a sudden repository for economic suffering. First they came from inspired strangers, laid-off workers or retirees with no pensions, who rarely asked for money but who always shared their stories of desperation. Then came hundreds more from Abess's own employees, recipients of his money, who thanked him and explained how they had spent his gifts: to pay off credit card bills, help unemployed relatives or make overdue home repairs.
"The money came when we were hurting," said Iliana Morejon, who paid off her daughter's college debt.
"People desperately needed it," said Carleatha Barbary, who had been with the company 40 years but had not saved for retirement.
"These were my own employees, and they couldn't pay bills, couldn't keep a house, couldn't afford a car," Abess said. "I knew there was an economic crisis going on, but I thought it was out there, not in my own back yard. And so I started realizing: I really don't know what people are going through. I don't know. I thought I was helping people with an extra boost toward their retirement, giving them a sort of pension plan. But for a lot of them, it was a chance to get caught up, or close to caught up."
The government bailout helped the country avoid a catastrophe, Abess thinks, but little else in the economy has stabilized during the past year. The banking industry remains fragile, even if Abess's bank has only a handful of troubled assets. Commercial real estate looks like an impending disaster. Wall Street has already announced billions more in bonuses.
The banker who once inspired so much hope has now started to avoid economic headlines. They depress him. He fears some of the news will be bad when, a year after his trip to Washington, he sits down at home to hear Obama speak again Wednesday night.
"If you said to me, 'What would you hope would happen from what you did?,' the answer would be 'I hope we wake up!' And that's not happening," Abess said.
"The risk here is that people are going to lose hope. I worry about what it does to our society, having people out of work for so long and struggling so hard to find work and getting into despair and things like that. People want to work and need to work. It goes beyond making a living. A lot of people are very scared, and they're starting to lose their spirit."