He gets warm welcome
By MATTHEW WATKINS
President Barack Obama urged residents to become active in improving their communities during a 22-minute speech at Texas A&M University on Friday, naming local residents and organizations as examples of how people can make a difference.
"When it comes to the challenges we face, the need for action always exceeds the limits of government," he said. "There is a lot that government can't do and shouldn't do, and that is where active citizens come in."
Obama shared the stage of A&M's Rudder Auditorium with former President George H.W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who previously served as A&M president.
The speech was part of a Presidential Forum on Service hosted by the Points of Light Institute, which was founded in response to Bush's call to service when he was elected president in 1988. The event celebrated the 20 years of growth in the service movement since its founding in 1989 and the work Obama and other presidents have done to promote volunteerism.
The speech was the main element of Obama's brief visit to the A&M campus Friday. He also stopped by a Corps of Cadets dining hall and shook hands with more than 1,000 students who were eating dinner there.
It was Obama's first time in Bryan-College Station, but he praised some of its residents and institutions as if he were familiar with the area -- he even began his speech with the traditional Aggie greeting of "Howdy."
He twice mentioned Mallory Myers, a junior political science major who heads the student-run community service project The Big Event as an example of how people should help their community.
"I understand this event is just one of the countless ways that students at this university are giving back to this community," he said. "From tutoring children and building homes, to raising money for fighting cancer and AIDS, to continuing A&M's proud tradition of military service ... what you all are doing right here is precisely what [Bush] was talking about when he called for those thousand points of light."
Myers was presented with a Point of Light award on stage before Obama arrived. The award has been given each day since the Bush administration to a volunteer or organization that exemplifies the goal of Bush's call to service.
Obama also highlighted Erin Buenger, a young Bryan resident who lobbied Washington for cancer research funding while she was suffering from the disease herself. She died in April.
"If 11-year-old Erin Buenger -- whose all-too-short-life touched so many in this community -- could travel to Washington and lobby members of Congress for cancer funding while going through chemotherapy, if she could raise money by making lanyards and writing her own cookbook -- all while making the honor roll -- then surely you can find the strength to serve even when you face challenges in your life," he said.
The president said that people such as Buenger and Myers help make the country what it is.
"That's always been the story of this nation -- the story of those who stepped forward in our darkest hour to serve it," he said. "Those who rose to answer the defining questions of their time: Colony or country? Free or half-free? Separate but equal, or truly equal? Those folks weren't in it for the money. Those folks were volunteers. Their service wasn't extra, it was the work that changed this country."
Though about 1,000 people protested Obama's policies a few hundred yards away in Spence Park, the president was greeted warmly with a standing ovation inside Rudder Auditorium. Hundreds of camera flash bulbs went off as he walked on the stage, shook hands with Bush and began his speech.
The standing-room audience consisted of about 150 Points of Light Award winners from across the country, including about a dozen from the Bryan-College Station area. About 400 students were in the crowd, along with 150 faculty and staff members. The rest were corporate sponsors and guests of the Points of Light Institute and national leaders.
Audience members arrived at the auditorium before 1 p.m. to hear the speech, which began after 4:30. Several blocks of the A&M campus were cordoned off all day to allow for dozens of Secret Service agents and local police officers to secure the area.
Obama and Bush were more than cordial in their remarks about each other. Obama praised Bush for his life of public service and for championing the cause of volunteerism. Bush thanked Obama for his support of such work.
"Our 44th president is absolutely right that there isn't a more important time to get involved," he said. "I salute the president."
Bush kept his introductory remarks short but praised A&M as the perfect place to host a forum on community service. Other speakers included Melody Barnes, Obama's domestic policy adviser; U.S. Trade Representative and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk; former Sen. Sam Nunn; and Bush's son Neil Bush. They discussed the role of the Internet in increasing volunteerism and the value of service to the nation.
When he had finished his speech, Obama slowly walked off the stage with Gates and Bush. Before exiting, he turned and waved to the standing crowd, and many waved back enthusiastically with both hands.
On his way off campus, Obama dropped in at Duncan Dining Center, where about 1,800 members of the Corps of Cadets and some other student leaders were eating dinner.
"I'm here to say how proud I am," Obama said. "Your commander in chief draws inspiration from you. ... And now I'm gonna shake as many hands as I can."
Students in the dining hall said that they had been told to wait there to have dinner with Bush but that they were surprised when he arrived with Obama and Gates. The trio stayed for about 10 to 15 minutes, students said. They all shook hands with students and signed autographs, and Obama accepted an A&M shirt as a gift from a cadet.
"Everyone was clapping and applauding," said Melinda Latas, a senior sociology major. "They were all so excited, and everyone was just pushing. It was like a surreal experience. He got within two or three feet of me."
Obama then headed to Easterwood Airport, where he began his trip back to Washington.
In all, Obama was in Texas for only a few hours. He arrived at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston from San Francisco on Air Force One around 3 p.m.
He then took the Marine One helicopter to Easterwood, arriving in time to give his speech before the expected time of 5 p.m.