TAMPA — His voice reduced to a croak, Cesar Hernandez finally finished talking Wednesday morning.
The University of South Florida student body president had just succeeded in giving a campus speech for 24 hours straight. And, yes, he was tired.
A can of Red Bull and cup of coffee lay beside the folding table Hernandez set up outside Cooper Hall. His once sharp suit was rumpled. He sat hunched over his microphone.
Hernandez hoped the speech would raise awareness of students' rights in the face of budget cuts and changes to immigration laws. He intended it as an invitation to President Barack Obama to visit USF and answer students' concerns face to face.
"It wasn't about me," Hernandez said. "It's about the message."
He began at 11 a.m. Tuesday, eager and energetic. As students came and went, Hernandez talked about his life experiences, his beliefs in equality and positivity and current political issues.
But he spent the majority of his time reading from a thick book: Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.
By 9 a.m. Wednesday, Hernandez was on Page 427, talking about Harry Truman.
A handful of students stood and watched.
Anthropology senior Donald Henry, 24, had been there since 5 a.m. after leaving at 9:45 p.m. the night before.
"I've learned a lot," he said. "World War I, World War II, the Americans trying to invade Cuba, lots of history."
Other than that?
"Leadership. When you're a leader, when you promise something you're going to do it. And look — he's still there," Henry said.
Nancy Palacios, a 22-year-old biomedical science junior, got there at 8 a.m. "to check on him," she said.
Palacios met Hernandez last year at a march on Washington. She's followed him to various demonstrations ever since.
"I try to learn from him," she said. "It seems like when he sets himself to something, he's going to make it happen."
Hernandez said there was never a time he was speaking without an audience — not even in the middle of the night. All of those students kept him going.
Dozens of them also signed up to carry on the marathon speech after Hernandez finished, filling time slots until the end of the week.
"It's really not about me," Hernandez said again.
By early afternoon, the baggy-eyed 24-year-old still hadn't slept.
"I'm like a freak of nature, I guess," he said.
In fact, at about 4 p.m. he was on his way to give another speech, this one to welcome his student government successor, Matt Diaz.
"I'm just giving the message that with 48,000 students, you've got to make sure you put your heart in it and give it your all," Hernandez said. "I think I proved that.
"Then I'm definitely going to go to sleep."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.