Celebrating a historic visit

President Obama’s visit marks a historic moment in UWL’s long history of big-name visits

President Barack Obama spoke to a crowd of about 2,400 people at UWL's Recreational Eagle Center Thursday, July 2.

President Barack Obama spoke to a crowd of about 2,400 people at UWL’s Recreational Eagle Center Thursday, July 2.

President Barack Obama’s visit to campus Thursday, July 2, marked the first time in university history that a sitting president visited campus.

“We are so grateful to President Obama for choosing our campus,” said UWL Chancellor Joe Gow prior to the president’s remarks. “It’s only fitting that a president who is committed to improving heath care and education comes to La Crosse. People say we have great education and healthcare right here — some of the best in the U.S.”

Obama spoke to a crowd of about 2,400 people at the Recreational Eagle Center about the economic progress the country has made, but the continued work that needs to be done — particularly in terms of supporting middle class workers. Watch the president’s remarks.

Danielle Cook, who will be a UWL senior in the fall, says Obama’s message applied to students too.

“After we graduate, we have to start thinking about the things he talked about like healthcare, benefits, overtime, fair pay — all these things become real issues when we step outside the classroom,” she says.

View a photo album from the president’s visit.

Continuing a tradition of big-name visits

The president’s visit continues a tradition of a campus that has been very politically active, says Joe Heim, professor emeritus of political science and UWL’s legislative liaison.

Image of John Kennedy speaking in Graff Main Hall auditorium.

John F. Kennedy addresses a crowd at Graff Main Hall in 1959. Image courtesy of Murphy Library, UW-La Crosse.

UWL has been one of the most politically active and aware university campuses in the state with high voter turnout and political candidates visiting campus regularly, says Heim. This list includes presidential candidates Sen. John F. Kennedy and Al Gore who spoke at UWL in 1959 and 1988, respectively. Bill Clinton also spoke to campus as a former president in 2008.

In addition, many more presidential candidates, presidents and vice presidents have made trips to La Crosse, including President Obama as a candidate for president for the first time in October 2008, which drew an estimated 15,000 people filling the streets near the La Crosse Center.

“I think that was an indication that people like him here,” says Heim.

In general, candidates on both sides of the aisle can expect to be greeted well in La Crosse and on campus, says Heim. “I think it’s viewed as favorable place for people to express their views,” he says.

La Crosse’s history of big-name visitors is likely one of the reasons President Obama chose this spot to make remarks, says Heim. Security and members of the press are comfortable with moving in and out of the city safely and quickly.

Other memorable big-name visitors

Image of Vice President Joe Biden with his wife.

Vice President Joe Biden came to UWL on Oct. 13, 2012.

Heim, who has been at nearly all of the big-name political visits to La Crosse for more than four decades, says one of his favorites was Michelle Obama’s campaign rally for her husband in 2008 at Cartwright Center. “She comes across very personable — very human,” says Heim.

UW-L staff member Karolyn Bald had the same feeling after meeting former President Bill Clinton in La Crosse in 1998. Bald was part of the motorcade that transported Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to the La Crosse Center. News had recently broke about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Bald says Clinton appeared much more “real” than the press-created celebrity.

“I think meeting a sitting president is an incredible honor, but what it reminded me of is that they are just people,” she says. “They put their shoes on the same way every morning too. I feel for the tremendous pressure they must feel holding the weight of a country on their shoulders. For an old political science major, it was the thrill of a lifetime!”

For UW-L staff member Brad Quarberg, who was also one of the La Crosse volunteers on the presidential motorcade, standing on the runway as Air Force One landed and departed was one of the most memorable moments. The president’s newer plane was out of use, grounded in mud in Champaign, Illinois. La Crosse to Washington D.C. ended up being the last trip before Air Force One was retired and later put on exhibit. The plane had transported presidents since the Kennedy administration, including carrying Kennedy’s body back to Washington following his assassination in Dallas.

After Clinton was done speaking at the La Crosse Center, volunteers were able to shake hands with him and Vice President Gore. Bald recalls Clinton kindly moving through the line “as charming and charismatic as I had envisioned.” Quarberg has the photo of himself shaking hands with the president along with a thank you note signed by Clinton still hanging on his office wall. “It was such an honor to personally meet a president,” he says.

Quarberg was sure to get a ticket to see Obama speak. Bald says a family commitment kept her from attending the event, but a current political science student should have the opportunity now, she adds. “Hopefully they will find it as thrilling as I did!,” she says.

A momentous occasion for Obama too

The president’s visit was a historic moment for many for the UWL and La Crosse community, but it also celebrated a major moment for President Obama.

Obama’s visit came on the heels of a very good week for him, notes Heim. And the president agreed. “The last seven days should remind us there is nothing America can’t do,” Obama said during his remarks.

Major pillars of his presidency have recently been affirmed including a landmark Supreme Court ruling on The Affordable Care Act, a Congressional vote to give Obama fast-track authority on a massive Pacific trade deal, and signs that the economy is slowly improving. Obama used the occasion to share how his policies are working. “Step by step we are moving forward. Middle class economics works,” he said.

Stopping in La Crosse was also a way to thank Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, for his help saving the trade deal, notes Heim.

“During the last few years of their presidency, presidents look at what history will say about them,” says Heim. “Some may say in his last two years as president he didn’t get anything done, but this shows he can work with Republicans and they’ve been able to work with him.”

View a photo album from the president’s visit