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Despite cold temperatures, historic event warms heart of local woman

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By Alice Du Pont

Handheld heat packs were never a part of Betsey Thomas' wardrobe until last week. The $1 purchases kept Thomas' hands and feet warm when she experienced the "coldest day of her life." But the temperature was irrelevant because Thomas was warmed through and through as she attended the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States.

“I had on layers of clothing and I used the hot packs in my boots and in my gloves. They kept me warm but there were so many people around us packed so tightly and that provided a little more warmth," she said.

Thomas had never been to Washington, D.C. and until a few weeks ago, didn't think she would attend the inauguration. She said she worked on the campaign, mostly making telephone calls because medical problems prevented her from walking long distances to canvass.

"I recently retired and my children said 'Mom, you've never been anywhere. Why don't you go?' My sister and brother started telling me the same thing. They were encouraging me to go. My family started giving me donations to make the trip," she said.

Thomas made the trip with B-Franz Travel, a local business, and knew everyone aboard the bus. Her companion for the trip was Loletha Koonce who, she said, was very patient with her physical limitations. The bus left Quincy late Jan. 18 and, she said, the anticipation began building up inside her as she stepped onto the bus,

"Tuesday morning we got up at 3 a.m., and it was a little crazy finding a parking space because all of the buses had to be parked in the same place. It took us about an hour to finally get a space and get off the bus. It was still dark when we found a spot, but it seemed like we walked and walked and walked. When we got to several gates we thought we could go into the mall area, they turned us around and sent us to another gate. That part was a little frustrating," she said.

As the sun rose, Thomas began talking to people all around her. She said it was an international crowd. One woman standing near her was dressed entirely in African garb. It turns out the woman was from the village of Barack Obama's father in Kenya. She met others from Alaska, South Carolina and Arkansas.

"I can truly say that Tuesday I met people from all over the world," she said.

When the moment she had made the trip for came at noon, Thomas said she was like all of those around her watching everything on the jumbo screens that dotted the mall. When the oath and speech were over she clapped, yelled and waved her flag.

"When the speech was over there were people around me crying. It was such a joyous and exciting time. I never thought I would witness history as it was made," she said.

History was exactly what fellow travelers English Jackson and his wife, Doris, intended when they arranged to attend the inaguration. Almost as soon as the votes were tallied and Obama was officially named president, Jackson was thinking about their grandchildren.

"The Wednesday after he won the election I came home from work and told my wife we need to take the grandchildren. It was a once in a lifetime experience and that we should take them," Jackson said.

All seven members of the Jackson family made the trip, including their son-in-law Cedric Knight, 16-year-old grandson Devonta Knight and his sister, 13-year-old Kaliyah, 14-year-old grandson Tyvonne Matthews, and Jackson's sister, Loletha Koonce.

Other than the Jackson kids there were about 15 other children, including the Havana Elementary School Debate Club, on board. Jackson said it was worth the trip to see the looks on the kids' faces when they toured the Smithsonian and got their first looks at the Capitol and other historic sites.

"They lived history," he said.