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Four years later, reflections on a historic inaugural

“I’m not as excited as I was four years ago but maybe it’ll be different,” Elysander Plaza said. “Because of that experience the first time, I can never stop being inspired.”

Suzanne Kreiter / Globe Staff (left)

“I’m not as excited as I was four years ago but maybe it’ll be different,” Elysander Plaza said. “Because of that experience the first time, I can never stop being inspired.”

He was 16 at the time, a Boston high school sophomore with no ­ambition beyond graduating, when his history teacher suggested a trip to Washington to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Elysander Plaza, the fifth of six children raised by a single mother, had never felt a personal connection to a president until Obama. He purchased a bus ticket and, along with 1.8 million others, headed to the ­nation’s capital. The words, the crowds, the setting — all of it stayed with him as he returned to East Boston. He kept the bus ticket in his wallet, wedged against his prom picture and photos of his nieces and nephews, to remind him of the inspiration he felt that day.

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“We all left Washington with a huge, huge change in our lives,” said Plaza, now 20. “It took something like that to make me want to do something better with my life.”

Life has moved on for the president and for Plaza, and it has not all been easy. Plaza was motivated to become the first in his family to make it to college, but is struggling to find work, a mixed message that seems to serve as an apt metaphor for the continued challenge of the times as Obama prepares to take the oath of office for a second time.

Four years after thousands of people like Plaza traveled from New England to Washington, the Globe followed up with some of these fervent Obama supporters in an effort to see how that moment affected their lives, how they feel about the president today, and what the second inaugural means to them.

They include a New Hampshire couple with two young children; a retired postal worker who had traveled with women from her Cambridge church; and a Vietnam-era Marine who marched in the parade with his Civil War reenactment group.

None had previously considered attending a presidential inauguration. But the swearing-in of the nation’s first black president had filled these men and women – young and old, black and white — with pride, inspiration, and hope – for themselves and for the country.

As the nation lurches forward after being gutted by recession, reality has set in, even among this group, as hopes were raised — and dashed. Only one in the group is returning for the second inaugural. Life has intervened — illness, advancing age, or simply being too busy making ends meet. But all say they will be watching, clinging to the promise they felt four years ago.

* * *

Kevin and Kirsten Meehan had met Obama when he was a senator rolling out his economic plan while campaigning in Dover, N.H. Impressed by his background as a community ­organizer and empathy for working-class families, they volunteered for his campaign. The couple was giddy when they were invited to join a train that would take the Obamas to Washington for the first inaugural.

Kevin, a nurse, was unemployed at the time, and the family survived partly on Kirsten’s disability payments for scoliosis, as well as food stamps.

Kirsten Meehan danced with President Obama at a 2009 inaugural ball.

Handout

Kirsten Meehan danced with President Obama at a 2009 inaugural ball.

“Obama had a true awareness of what people are going through and was in a position to affect change for them,” said Kirsten, now 45.

The Meehans were the very opposite of big-money or influential people, but the challenges that they faced gave them special status in the eyes of inauguration planners.

In a speech in Baltimore on Obama’s whistle-stop tour, the incoming president singled out the Meehans, who could barely afford to turn on the heat or pay rent, and had to tap into Kevin’s 401(k) to support their 6- and 7-year-old children.

“Theirs are the voices I will carry with me every day in the White House,” Obama said. “Theirs are the stories I will be thinking of when we deliver the changes you elected me to make.”

The Meehans were one of 16 families invited by the inaugural committee to join the Obamas for the four-day celebration. The memories, captured in photos , now seem surreal. There’s Michelle Obama on the train passing Kirsten a piece of birthday cake, and Jill Biden handing her a napkin – “like I was a cousin at a family reunion.”

At the inaugural ball, Kirsten, dressed in a gold taffeta blouse and black velvet skirt that a local store had donated, grabbed Obama’s hand and danced with the president as Stevie Wonder sang “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” 20 feet away. Kevin recalled that Michelle Obama’s white one-shouldered Jason Wu gown sounded like paper when he hugged her.

“It’s not that Barack Obama became president and the world changed,” said Kevin Meehan (seen above with Kirsten and their children, Seamus and Harper). “Many people who voted for him have had some disappointments because change didn’t happen overnight. . . . But it was incremental change. When all’s said and done, we’re trudging along.”

SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF

“It’s not that Barack Obama became president and the world changed,” said Kevin Meehan (seen above with Kirsten and their children, Seamus and Harper). “Many people who voted for him have had some disappointments because change didn’t happen overnight. . . . But it was incremental change. When all’s said and done, we’re trudging along.”

They were aware that their Cinderella moment would not last, that the magic – Obama had entered office with an 80 percent approval rating — would eventually wear off.

“It’s not that Barack Obama became president and the world changed,” said Kevin, 46. “Many people who voted for him have had some disappointments because change didn’t happen overnight. Progressives thought it was going to be utopia after the election – love, hold hands, kumbaya. But it was incremental change. When all’s said and done, we’re trudging along.”

The Meehan’s situation has improved, and more than incrementally. Kevin has a $65,000-a-year job as a case manager at a local rehabilitation nursing facility, where he sees the benefits of Obama’s health care overhaul law on a daily basis. The law has also freed the Meehans from having to choose between dining out and a flu shot.

They’re able to begin saving for a home, their children’s college educations, retirement — luxuries they could not allow themselves to consider before.

“We’re finally making ends meet,” said Kevin, who will likely watch Obama being sworn in from work. “We really are making our way to the point where the idea of being a middle class family is actually a reality.”

* * *

Doreen Hawkins, a child of immigrants from Barbados, never imagined the possibility of a black president. Not in her lifetime. “I just needed to be there and see it for myself,” said Hawkins, now 82. “I didn’t want to see it on TV or for ­nobody to tell me about it.”

Hawkins dressed in new fur-lined boots, fur-lined gloves, and a fur-lined hat for the two-hour walk down a long stretch of the National Mall with her friends, many in their 70s and 80s. While other revelers hurried past them, Hawkins and nine other women from Cambridge’s St. Paul AME Church were in no rush. They rested ­every few blocks, unfolding their metal canes into small stools, then continued walking in pairs, arm in arm, savoring the moment.

At the foot of the Washington Monument, they watched history unfold on giant screens as Obama was sworn in. While her friends hugged, tears streaming, Hawkins rejoiced ­silently. She prayed that no harm would come to Obama and cut his presidency short.

Hawkins continues to pray for Obama’s safety above all else. But she says she is now too old, too ill, too weary to make the journey for his second inauguration. She plans to watch the moment from home on television, grateful she was able to witness it the first time.

Hawkins doubts another black president will be elected in the near future, given the disrespect some members of Congress have shown Obama in his first term and what she called the vitriolic racism evident during his reelection campaign.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here,” she said, “but this is enough for me.”

* * *

Lieutenant Benny White ­focused on not falling over as he marched toward the Obamas with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, a replication of the famous all-black military unit formed during the Civil War.

White’s group had been ­selected to march in Obama’s inaugural parade, and as the regiment approached the president, White was seized with emotion.

“Growing up in the projects of Roxbury, I would never have thought that I’d be standing in front of a president,” Benny White said. He’ll be back for the second inaugural.

SUZANNE KREITER / GLOBE STAFF (LEFT)

“Growing up in the projects of Roxbury, I would never have thought that I’d be standing in front of a president,” Benny White said. He’ll be back for the second inaugural.

“Growing up in the projects of Roxbury, I would never have thought that I’d be standing in front of a president,” said White, now 68. Let alone a black president.

The Civil War reenactors ­saluted Obama as they ­approached. He acknowledged them with a wave.

Other than marrying his wife and raising his four children, being in Obama’s presence was the “greatest thing that’s ever happened in my life,” said White, dressed in his period uniform of sky blue wool trousers, a navy waistcoat, and carrying a pocket watch during a recent board meeting for the regiment in Hyde Park.

White, a Vietnam-era ­Marine veteran, cofounded the reenactment regiment 22 years ago after the release of the movie “Glory,” which told the story of the volunteer infantry during the Civil War . Since the 2009 inauguration, he has been flooded with invitations to ­appear in schools, speaking to young people about the importance of history.

White will return to Washington to march in Obama’s second inauguration with a larger group of 27. He says he is just as proud to do so this time around.

“Obama shows you that anybody can do anything in this country,” said White, still marveling that a black man was elected to the White House not once, but twice, and what this means for the opportunities available to his 15 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“I think a lot of young kids accept it more. They accept a lot of things we would never dream of.”

* * *

The boys from Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury rose at 3 a.m. in a West Virginia hotel to begin their pilgrimage to the Capitol. Not that they ever went to bed. They were five teenagers who had spent the night wrestling and wondering about what they would see the next day. For most, this was their first trip outside Boston, made possible by their history teacher who secured tickets to the inauguration from US Senator John F. Kerry.

They were bright students, the few who paid attention in an overcrowded class. Their teacher, Marcie Fiorini, had persuaded them to join her history club after school, where for one hour a week she was able to expand upon her lessons.

Elysander Plaza had never paid much attention to politics, uncertain how what happened in Washington affected his young life. But he liked Obama. He trusted him and identified with him. Obama had brown skin like him, and, in another parallel, had been raised by a single mother.

That bitter cold morning in 2009, older black strangers would stop the group of black and Latino boys in the subway, on the Mall, everywhere they went, making sure they knew just how much this moment meant for their people and how lucky they were to be there.

Until that day, Plaza said, he was just a Puerto Rican kid who did what he was supposed to do and not much more. “I never wanted to be an overachiever,” he said, even though he did internships in the IT departments for the Red Sox, Harvard, and the Museum of Fine Arts. High school was going to be it. College seemed like somebody else’s dream.

“But I thought about how Obama made history, and how he was going to leave a legacy in this world,” Plaza said. “Ms. Fiorini would ask us what we wanted to be remembered for when we die. I didn’t want my life to not mean anything.”

When Plaza returned to Boston, he hit the books. His grade point average shot up from a 3.0 to a 3.6. He received a four-year scholarship to the Wentworth Institute of Technology, where he is a sophomore majoring in computer networking.

College has been a tough transition. Plaza did not feel ­academically prepared for many of his classes, and doesn’t understand why he needs to take subjects like physics and chemistry when all he wants to do is fix computers. Even though his tuition is covered, his mother had taken out a $2,300 loan on his behalf to pay for books, health insurance, and other expenses. A collection agent regularly calls his mother’s cellphone, threatening court action.

Plaza now thinks about leaving school, just for a little while, so he can make enough money to repay the loan. He is waiting to hear from the Apple Store and Best Buy.

All of this seemed to put the buzz about Obama in the background. Plaza registered to vote but failed to cast a ballot in November. He began to wonder if Obama’s call for change had made much difference. “That was kind of a letdown for me,” Plaza said. “He sounded good at the time, but what now?”

One day recently, Plaza took the faded bus ticket from his wallet and tucked it in a shoe box in his mother’s living room closet for safekeeping.

Then, last week, he visited his former school, where he is volunteering as an assistant coach for the boys volleyball team. He ran into a computer teacher and the two reminisced about how Plaza had felt four years earlier. “My teacher told me that I had come back a different person after the inauguration,” he said.

It wasn’t just because of Obama’s words, but because so many people at the event, black and white, had told Plaza “how much of a difference we need to make and that we can make in this world.” That, it turns out, may have been the greatest inspiration of all.

On Monday, Plaza plans to watch the inauguration on television, hopeful but hardened.

“I’m not as excited as I was four years ago but maybe it’ll be different,” Plaza said. “Because of that experience the first time, I can never stop being inspired and wanting to do something with my life.”

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.
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