Fred Corriher column – Memories of inaugurations past

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Fred Corriher
Special to the Post
Since 1977, I have been privileged to attend three presidential inaugurations with various members of my family. If all goes well, my son Lotan Corriher, a political science major at UNC-Wilmington, and I will be attending a fourth today ó the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States.
In 1977, having been the 8th Congressional District Democratic chairman for two terms, I was able to get enough inaugural tickets for the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter from Congressman Bill Hefner for a virtual trainload of Rowan Democrats. We used the private car Crescent Queen, which slept 12 people, and a rented sleeper car, the Royal Arch, which slept 22 people. We gathered on these cars at the Salisbury Depot in the early evening, and had a going-away party including plenty of peanuts in honor of Jimmy Carter. His “Peanut Special” train had passed through the previous evening en route to Washington.
In addition to many active Rowan Democrats, my wife Bonnie, our daughters Susan, 12, and Charlotte, 9 made the trip.
Even though I doubt anyone had gone to sleep, we had all turned in around midnight. The train arrived in Union Station in Washington around 8 a.m. and we were greeted at the station by Hefner and his wife, Nancy.
After bundling up against the bitter cold, we exited Union Station and walked up to the East Front of the U. S. Capitol. This was the last year a presidential inauguration was held at this location, as the first Reagan inauguration in 1981 and all others since have been held on the West Front.
We were elbow-to-elbow with thousands of others, a fact which helped to insulate us against the cold. Everyone warmed up, however, with the inaugural ceremonies and applauded our fellow Southerner as he took the oath of office.
Some were lucky enough to leave the swearing in and get a standing position for the Inaugural Parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and to see President and Mrs. Carter walk the parade route, much to the consternation of the Secret Service.
The first inauguration of President Bill Clinton was even more special for my family in that I had just assumed the office of president at Catawba College in early January 1993. We planned a multi-purpose trip on the private railroad car “Doris,” which had been the private car of James B. Duke.
When the car arrived in Union Station late that afternoon and was placed in its parking place, we hosted a Catawba College Alumni Reunion on the car with over 50 area alumni dropping in for a visit.
Our family on this trip included Bonnie; our son Frederick III, 15, with whom Bonnie had been pregnant at the Carter Inaugural in 1977; daughter Mary, 13; and son John Lotan, not quite 4 at the time. We spent the entire three nights sleeping on the Doris, and got to witness a lot of dignitaries who occupied private cars parked in Union Station.
Early on the morning of Jan. 20, we walked over to the Rayburn Office Building to pick up our tickets in Hefner’s office. Only then did we learn a ticket was required for each person, small children included. Since we only had four tickets for five people, I volunteered to take care of John Lotan while Bonnie, Frederick and Mary attended the swearing-in ceremonies.
John and I did a lot of walking, but it was another blustery cold day, so some of it was in the halls of the Rayburn Building as we tried to kill some time before heading back to Union Station. From the congressman’s office, we had a great view of the West Front of the Capitol Building and could see the crowds beginning to gather.
As we made our way down one corridor, a large contingent of Capitol Police suddenly emerged from a hearing room. Following in their wake was none other than Nelson Mandela, the recently freed leader from South Africa. Even though it was a brief encounter, it made a lasting impression on John to have seen such a famous person.
I pushed John in his stroller all the way back to Union Station, and we were able to watch the swearing in on a small television on the rail car. Even though we missed a historic moment, we both enjoyed the experience and were able to exchange stories with our other family members when they returned. One moment which stands out in their minds is seeing the Marine helicopter carrying former President George H. W. Bush flying low over the Capitol as he left the area, no longer the most powerful man in the world.
Our eldest son, Frederick, and I were the only ones to go to Washington for the second Clinton inauguration in January 1997. He had worked in Congressman Hefner’s office as an intern the previous summer. We took an AMTRAK sleeping car. Shortly after breakfast, just south of Washington, we felt a terrible jolt and the train came to a sudden stop. The engine had hit a large dump truck which we later learned was from Gold Hill. The engine was derailed, but none of the passenger cars suffered any damage. It delayed our arrival in Washington by about five hours.
The next morning, Sunday, we walked around Capitol Hill to see the setup for the inauguration the next day. When we returned to the hotel room around 1 p.m., there was an urgent telephone message asking me to call home. It was only then I learned my dad had been involved in an automobile wreck that morning and had not survived. It was a terrible blow to Frederick and me, as we both bore his name and were very close to him. We made immediate plans to return home in the first available flight. It was one of the saddest days of our lives.
This year, my son Lotan and I are driving up to the inauguration of Barack Obama and staying in Baltimore to avoid the crowds in D.C. and the elevated hotel prices. We will take a commuter train into the city today, where we will join the throngs on the Mall to witness this most historic event.
This is a special event in Lotan’s life, as he missed out on the Clinton Inauguration. As a sophomore political science major at UNC-Wilmington, he was very active in the Obama Campaign for Change on the UNCW campus, heading up the non-resident registration and get-out-the-vote effort. He also serves as vice president of the Young Democratic Club on campus.
For me, it will probably by my last opportunity to see a presidential inauguration, but it will also be one of the greatest days of my life. Having grown up in a small Southern town before the days of even token racial equality, I remember the horrendous bigotry and even hatred that prevailed even here in Rowan County. The discriminatory practices kept me from having any African-American classmates throughout my years in Landis schools, as well as at Catawba College.
That didn’t, however, keep me from having a wealth of African-American friends. Many were employees of our family’s companies, others were housekeepers and cooks in local white families’ homes. Some I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with unloading bales of cotton from boxcars and loading cartons of yarn into truck trailers. I came to know them as close friends, many of whose friendships and love I cherish even to this day. Some did not live to see the improvements in race relations we enjoy today, even though there is still much to be done. Many did not live to be able to vote, or to attend an integrated school. Few, precious few, could have imagined we would be inaugurating a black president of the United States.
In addition to rewarding my son Lotan for his hard work in the campaign, I am making this trip in honor and in memory of those dear and departed friends who didn’t live to see this historic event they could never have foreseen. I only wish they could be there.