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Obama greets crowd at Home State Ball

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By Herbert A. Sample
Associated Press

From Hawai'i to Washington, D.C., residents of the Hawaiian Islands on Tuesday celebrated the first Hawai'i-born president of the United States, Barack Obama.

Early risers listened to the inauguration on their car radios, or watched it on television in their homes, from a famous island eatery to the private academy that Obama attended in his youth.

The dawn of Obama's presidency held a special meaning for islanders, who provided him with his biggest majority of any state with 72 percent of the vote last November.

At Don Ho's Island Grill, named for the late crooner, almost 200 Obama supporters sat glued to big-screen televisions, cheering every time Obama appeared on the screen and especially at 7 a.m., Hawai'i time, when a television announcer said Obama had officially become president.

"This is a historic moment," said Richard Sommery-Gade, a disabled Vietnam veteran from Nanakuli who said he was in a U.S. history class when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and had just returned from Southeast Asia when Robert F. Kennedy was killed.

"For me, this is the completion of a circle," he added. "We've been waiting a very long time for somebody like Barack Obama to come along and unite the country regardless of political party or race or anything."

The event was organized by Ed Auld, a retired freight forwarder and Obama supporter who says he just wanted to rejoice in the first hours of the new president's term with friends and family.

But after he placed an announcement of the event on Obama's campaign Web site, others signed up, too, including residents of Hawai'i, New Mexico, California, Australia and elsewhere.

"I'm just happy at this time in my life to be a part of history," said Auld, 68. "For Hawai'i, of course, it's got that extra little kick for us ... I'm so glad I did this. As I told my wife the other day, I'm glad I'm not on the sidelines on this one."

In between bites of scrambled eggs, Portuguese sausage and fried rice, others heaped hopes and dreams on Obama which they professed little worry that the new president could meet.

"I have a lot of expectations, a lot of hope, and I expect to see a lot of change," said Beth Charlton, 56, a Honolulu medical technician who is the daughter of Frank Marshall Davis, a black journalist and poet who was a friend of Obama's maternal grandfather.

"I feel truly proud to be an American," said Charlton's daughter, Rebecca, 19, a college student. "I never have before."

Diane August, a 76-year-old therapist from Santa Fe, N.M., who vacations in Hawai'i every year, called Obama "the hope for a world that is cleansed of evil ... because he can work with everybody. Everybody who other people would make enemies he can work with."

The political sentiments of the breakfast's participants were not difficult to gauge. Some wore Obama campaign shirts. Some shed a tear when Obama took the oath of office, and the room erupted in cheers when the new president finished his inauguration speech.

A few minutes later, they waved and hooted derisively as they watched former President George W. Bush climb stairs into a waiting Marine Corps helicopter that whisked him away from the Capitol.

A few miles away, students and parents watched Obama take the oath of office at the private academy where he was educated, Punahou School. Everyone stood when Vice President Joe Biden and Obama took their oaths, and again after the new president finished his inauguration speech.

Obama attended Punahou, in the Manoa neighborhood, from the fifth grade through his senior year of high school, graduating in 1979.

A few blocks away, residents of Punahou Circle Apartments, where Obama's maternal grandmother lived with her family from 1967 to 2008, held a potluck breakfast in the open-air lobby. The grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, died last year.

Ella Liu, 69, said the lobby was packed with people watching the inauguration ceremony.

"When he took the oath, you could hear people sniffling. People were crying," said Liu, a friend of Dunham's who has lived in the apartment tower for 25 years.

Food was served at the potluck on two of Dunham's platters that Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's sister, donated for the event. Soetoro-Ng and her family were in Washington for the inaugural.

Another resident of Punahou Circle, Hubert Chang, 49, took a half-day off work to watch the inauguration ceremony. He graduated from Punahou two years ahead of Obama, and remembers him.

Chang's son, Bryston Chang, was in Washington, D.C., participating in the inaugural parade as a trombone player in the Punahou School Marching Band.

"He's freezing, enjoying himself," Chang said.

If Dunham could speak to everyone gathered, Chang said, she probably would object that people were making too much fuss.

"She wouldn't like the limelight. She would probably say, 'This is too much hoopla,' " Chang said.

In Washington, D.C., Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawai'i, used a mobile phone-based social networking service to describe his participation in the inaugural luncheon at the U.S. Capitol.

When what some described as as seizure struck U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., Capitol physicians responded immediately to the situation, Abercrombie said.

"Ninety-five percent of the room may not have even been aware exactly what was happening" because the medical team responded so quickly and moved Kennedy out of the room, Abercrombie said. He added that people knew there was some commotion but not everyone may have been aware that Kennedy was involved.

To the luncheon, Abercrombie said he wore a maile lei and his wife, Nancie Caraway, wore a double orchid lei. When the new president approached the couple, Abercrombie said Obama commented, "Here's someone who's brought a bit of Hawai'i with them."

Later Tuesday, the marching band from Punahou School, where Obama attended during his teenage years, performed in the inaugural parade, the first civilian group to pass in front of the presidential reviewing stand.

Toward the end of the lengthy parade, the Hawai'i Home State Float passed by, a boxy vehicle on top of which sat an oddly shaped Styrofoam replica of a volcano. The float was commissioned by the Presidential Inaugural Committee and built by Hargrove Enterprises.

Obama and first lady Michelle Obama made an appearance Tuesday night at the Home State Ball for Illinois and Hawai'i.

Obama greeted the crowd with a big "Aloha." In his remarks, the president told the gathering the ball was special "because it represents our roots."

Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican who campaigned against Obama last year, issued a statement acknowledging the new president's Hawai'i roots.

"As President Obama and Vice President Biden begin their first day in office, I am confident that the fundamental principals that bind us as citizens of our nation will also bring us together in overcoming challenges and seizing opportunities in the years ahead," she said.

Willes K. Lee, chairman of the state Republican Party, in a statement called Tuesday "a historic day for America. Congratulations to President Obama and I wish him the best as he enters the most influential office in the world."

Later Tuesday, the Hawai'i Democratic Party scheduled a fundraising inaugural banquet at The Royal Hawaiian hotel in Waikiki.

Other inaugural events included the All Korean American Ball at the Hawaii Prince Hotel in Waikiki, a fundraiser for the Hawaii Foodbank at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i, and a party at the Aloha Tower hosted by executives of a software company and an events production company.


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