15 years ago I met a skinny guy with a funny name

On Barack Obama's 60th birthday, I reflected on the impact that our first encounter had on me.

This past week it was President Barack Obama’s 60th birthday. Thinking about how young he was when he was first running for office caused me to reflect on the first time that I met Barack Obama, and what a profound impact that day had on my life.

Almost exactly 15 years ago, on August 15th in 2006, he came to speak at Eastern Illinois University where I was attending college. There was an administrator on campus who I was friends with, and in his office one morning he asked me if I was going to hear our United States Senator speak that day. I had no idea who he was talking about. I wasn’t into politics at all, and it just struck me as a very strange way to spend a summer afternoon. I told my friend Ryan that I had no plan to do that but I asked him who our Senator was and asked why he was interested in going. His answer was simply, “His name is Barack Obama. They say he might be the first black president someday… you should come".

With a mix of curiosity and disbelief, I decided that I’d go to the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union later that day to see this guy give a talk. Witnessing Senator Obama speak that day to a packed room of a few hundred people in rural Illinois was something special. I remember standing up against the back wall and texting my dad, "This must have been what it was like to hear JFK speak". He talked about oil prices, pensions, and specific policies that day... but what I remember most was how he spoke with conviction as he encouraged us to believe that we could make the world better if we did more than wait for the government to fix things, but if we work together as a community to solve problems locally and held politicians accountable along the way.

I don't think there was a word for "selfie" in 2006, and if there was, I certainly didn't take one on my flip phone. But before he had secret service, or even before he had lingering crowds... I stood and waited under this little overhang of the MLK Jr. Student Union and I thanked him for coming after he finished giving comments to the university newspaper.

Not only was it major for me to meet someone that looked like me that was an elected official, but to hear an elected official speak emphatically about how he believed government could be a vehicle for good was so inspiring that it changed the trajectory of my life. To that point in my life, I had never thought too much about politics. And what little I did think about it, I was skeptical that it was anything more than a sport for powerful white men to become more powerful. At that time I was going to school to become a teacher because I wanted to have a positive impact on people’s lives, and that was the very first day that I considered that politics might be something that I could engage in someday in my pursuit to make the world a little better.

Now today I got up early in the morning to make sourdough bread by hand to share with my community. And together with this community, through these bread sales, we’ll raise money for the local Boys and Girls Club’s new skilled trade center. Through our actions together more young men and women who may look like me might have an increased opportunity for life liberty and the pursuit of happiness in this little city that I’m raising my kids in. And in some small way, all of this links back to the inspiration that this now 60-year-old man gave to me 15 years ago when he came to speak to an audience of college students in rural Illinois about his hope-filled perspective as a newly elected United States Senator.

It is pretty cool how life works.

For folks in Madison, I have two important updates for you today.

  1. You can pre-order bread right now for Thursday pick up. This link will take you to my website to buy a loaf. It would mean a lot to me if you decide to get a loaf this month. And then you can encourage a friend to get a loaf too :)

  2. A reminder that this week is Black Restaurant Week in Madison. Melissa and I frequently get dinner for the family from Marie’s Soul Food on Monroe Street nearby our home. Now we’ve got a list of additional black-owned restaurants that we’re going to eat at this week. Check out this list to see restaurants that are participating in Madison’s 6th annual Black Restaurant Week, and please do email me to let me know your favorites :)

The village baker