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History in the making

For this small town, Wednesday was a once-in-a-lifetime day as Barack Obama spoke at Knology Park.

Outside the stadium's walls, we met protesters arguing passionately outside a VFW post, homeowners becoming parking attendants on their lawns and Obama fans fueling up with pancakes before the rally.

People talked politics at the local hair salon, at the bowling alley. The mayor practiced a speech. Out-of-town visitors drove for hours, and a surge of high school students skipped class, all for the same reason: to witness history.

In the rally line

Shirley McMinns and her adult son, Daniel Leonard, left their home in Highlands County just before 1 a.m., made it to Knology Park at 4 a.m. and were among the very first in line.

McMinns, 56, made the nighttime drive, she said, because it was important to get a good seat and make the most of seeing Obama. She also made the trip for her ill mother.

McMinns, who is black, said her mother, 77, had lived through segregation and never believed she would live to see a black man so close to becoming president.

"She would have loved to come," McMinns said. When Obama won the Democratic nomination, "she sat there and she cried. She said, 'we will never go back to the time we had separate rest rooms and water fountains.' "

Will Van Sant, Times Staff Writer

Taking refuge at Iris's

As an incredibly long line began snaking around the stadium in the hot sun, some Obama supporters took refuge in Iris's Family Restaurant, a local gathering spot across the street from Knology Park .

Wednesday's menu featured "Obama Mama strawberry banana pancakes" for $6.99.

With its cheap home-cooking-style meals, Iris's is usually a magnet for snowbirds and local retirees. But owners Rick and Meggan Nelson said their regulars were staying away. Instead, the place filled up with hardcore Democrats wearing T-shirts with slogans like "Barack Star" and "Hot Chicks for Obama."

At one booth, young mother Sara Wyley of Clearwater fueled up her three tiny, home-schooled children with pancakes and syrup, wanting them to see history in the making. "Hopefully we'll be able to make it through the wait without them going nuts," she said.

In the next booth, two bearded men angrily discussed the proposed federal bailout of financial markets.

"Eight years of thievery, lying and corruption. They broke the financial system, and now we're going to bail them out for stealing the American people's money," said Tony O'Hagen, a retired Merchant Marine who grew up nearby and played Little League ball at Grant Field, where Knology Park is now. "Thank God they didn't privatize Social Security, or senior citizens would be living in refrigerator boxes under the highway."

In the next booth, Doug Lawley, 66, quietly savored his biscuits and gravy. "Just grabbing breakfast. I'm actually a McCain guy," he said with a sheepish smile. "Don't tell anybody."

Mike Brassfield, Times Staff Writer

At the lanes

The Neapolitan ice cream colored bowling balls slowly slid down the glossy lanes before nudging the pins to fall. When there was a strike or near strike, the small group of women in the Wednesday Ladies League would high-five one another.

A cordial but competitive spirit consumed the dimly lighted Dunedin Lanes at 405 Patricia Ave. on Wednesday morning despite the ruckus a few blocks away at Knology Park.

"I have to bowl," Marge Gacha, a 72-year-old Clearwater resident and an Obama supporter, said with a laugh. "That's important, too. Obama understands."

Peggy Roche of Dunedin is undecided on who to vote for, but she's glad Obama is in town.

"They come to the area and they always go to Tampa or St. Petersburg," she said. "It's about time someone came to Dunedin."

The women bowlers, some as old as 90, don't mind expressing opinions about the upcoming election. Some say they go back and forth on who to elect, some say the choice is clear.

"I'm a Republican and a Christian and that tells you who I'm voting for," said Dot Lindsay, 80, of Oldsmar. "I think he's (Obama) an empty suit and doesn't have the qualifications to run for president."

Betty Crawley, 68, was giddy as she stepped away from the lane after garnering a strike. She said she's told the ladies of the bowling league what will happen if John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, is elected.

"He's going to take your Social Security and privatize it," the Safety Harbor resident said. "And besides that, (Sarah) Palin doesn't do it for me. I don't skin moose."

As the final balls were thrown, the women began to look for a place to do lunch.

Demorris A. Lee, Times Staff Writer

With the mayor

By Wednesday morning, the city had pulled together a major campaign event in a few days. So Mayor Bob Hackworth, feet up on his desk, was free to relax into one last task. Quietly, he mumbled through the short speech on 5- by 7-inch note cards that he would soon use to introduce a presidential nominee. The Obama campaign had provided the text, but Hackworth, who also is running for Congress against Republican Bill Young, added a few touches of his own.

Dunedin went from a "fine" city to a "great" city. He added this sentence: "For my town and my family, this election is all about the future.'' And he wished the audience a great day in Dunedin.

Just to make sure he wouldn't forget anything, Hackworth's wife, Gwynne, was there to remind him to bring his notes and of course . . . to remember to turn off his cell phone before he started his speech.

A few hours later, Hackworth was first up, even before the prayer and the pledge of allegiance. He waved, he smiled, he hit his mark.

"Good afternoon!" he said with enthusiasm, "My name is Bob Hackworth and I'm the mayor, right here in Dunedin!"

The crowd roared.

When all the speeches were over, a dapper-looking man approached Hackworth. "Mr. Mayor, good speech," said Richard O'Brien, who will soon move to Pinellas. "Maybe I could do some volunteer work for you.

"I'd write you a check if it was a year ago, but times are tough."

Theresa Blackwell, Times Staff Writer

Parking the cars

Parking was big business in small-town Dunedin. Some people set up with signs ushering cars in. Others stumbled into the role of parking attendant.

Tom Dee rents a house on Lexington Street, a block south of the stadium. He didn't realize anything was happening until someone woke him up that morning.

"They told me I should go out and make a buck," Dee said, so he stood out front, collecting $10 a car. He plans to take his fiancee out for dinner with the money.

"Who are these people?" asked Ally Booth, when she walked out to check her mail. She lives a block down from Dee. She's not used to seeing the stadium parking stretch so far, so that tipped her off to the fact that something was happening — that and the thrashing sound of the helicopters above.

On nearby Roanoke Street, Tammy Adams did the unthinkable: She let people park for free.

For baseball games she charges people to park. And across the street, her neighbors were charging $20. But Adams just couldn't bring herself to do it on this historic day for Dunedin.

"I just think it's the right thing," Adams said. "It's exciting for a little town like Dunedin."

And she's not even an Obama supporter. She likes McCain.

Jonathan Abel, Times Staff Writer

At the salon

Not everyone at Gregory's Salon was on the same page Wednesday when it came to choosing the next president.

But most were pleased with the national attention that Obama's visit brought to Dunedin.

"It's pretty neat to have a presidential candidate come to town and put the spotlight on Dunedin," said Mike Jordan, 34, not an Obama supporter, while waiting for his wife to get highlights.

Meanwhile, a couple of other patrons were primping with plans to attend the rally.

Female impersonator Natasha Richards got her roots touched up and her eyebrows shaped, hoping to make an impression on "the future president" in case she caught his eye from the crowd.

And Heather Rudolph got a new 'do with plans to volunteer at the rally helping disabled people.

"There's lots of cute volunteers there," said Rudolph, 33, as her stylist put the finishing touches on an inverted bob, with highlights.

She supports Obama, partly because her mother has lupus, she said.

"I really think with Obama my mother is going to get the universal health care she needs," Rudolph said.

A bit later, salon owner Gregory Brady sat at the appointment desk and logged onto the rally online. While waiting for her highlights to process, Brady's client Glenna Caffee peered at the screen.

"I'm not sold on either candidate, yet," said Caffee, an independent.

Lorri Helfand, Times Staff Writer

With the protests

The our-team-is better-than-your-team rivalry outside Knology Park before Obama's speech was about as benign as a Toronto Blue Jays spring training game.

For the most part, Obama fans waited in line, joking and laughing, excited about the event.

But there were a few McCain supporters who would not be denied attention.

Mike Freese of St. Petersburg strolled up and down Douglas Avenue with a sign depicting a caricature of Obama and a half white, half black duck, referring to Obama's biracial heritage.

A cartoon bubble showed Obama saying "The right will say I'm young. They'll say I'm inexperienced. They'll say I've got a funny name. They'll say I don't look like the guys on our currency and they might even say I'm black!''

In his hands, the Obama drawing was holding a sign saying, "I'm the one we've been waiting for!''

The duck was flapping its wings. Its cartoon bubble said, "You're half black Barack! Half black! Half blaaack!''

"It's a joke,'' Freese said. "It's funny. It's like the Aflac (insurance commercials).''

"Boo!'' said the people in line who saw the sign. "Boo!''

Freese, who is white, was wearing a camouflage hat with a rebel flag stitched on it, and the message "Git-R-Done."

"I've already been called a racist," Freese said, referring to the hat, but insisting he is not racist.

Waleed McFarland, 29, an African-American Obama volunteer from Tampa, wasn't buying it.

"This is the most racist country in the world, and that is a fact,'' he said. "We've got reality TV, but we're further from reality than we've ever been.''

Eileen Schulte, Times Staff Writer

At the high school

If Obama has fans at Dunedin High School, it wasn't apparent Wednesday.

As hundreds of students took a late-morning break in the school courtyard not a single student was sporting an Obama T-shirt or pin.

But the teenagers were buzzing about which friends got permission from their parents to take the day off from school.

Principal Paul Summa said the school saw a surge in excused absences, with between 40 and 50 students leaving to attend the once-in-a-lifetime event happening less than 3 miles away.

Sophomore Quadrae McGill said he wasn't able to go but he had friends at the rally who promised to share photos later.

"It's big because he's the first black man to run for president and I'm living through it right now,'' said McGill, 15, who is black. "He's setting a legacy and he's making history and we're part of it."

Rita Farlow, Times Staff Writer

History in the making 09/24/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 26, 2008 3:38pm]
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