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

A look at some of the guests honored at the annual State of the Union address since President Ronald Reagan introduced the practice in 1982.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 12:39 AM

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.

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