This past January 25, Glenn Lewis, mayor of the city of Moore, Okla., contacted me to say he had a couple of phone numbers in Washington I needed to call—one an office number and the other a mobile phone. When I called, I was asked if I would like to attend the State of the Union address (SOTU) the following Tuesday as the first lady's guest.
I was being asked to represent those who responded after the EF5 tornado struck Moore last May.
Of course, I was very surprised—maybe shocked is a better description—to have such an opportunity. I gladly accepted the invitation, but knowing I'd need to be off work, I contacted my city manager, Steve Eddy, right away to let him know about it. As always, he was very supportive.
Over the next few hours, I was emailing, texting and phoning with some very wonderful people at the White House. Bess Evans, senior policy advisor for Public Engagement in the White House Office of Public Engagement and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, spent an enormous amount of time making sure everything went as planned. She made sure I knew what would happen in the next few days and that I understood how everything would be organized. She also made sure I was comfortable with the tight schedule necessary for this type of event. I was advised not to discuss my visit with anyone except my wife and my boss until the White House issued the press release.
Everyone was allowed to bring a guest with them to the White House so my wife, Cindy, was very excited for the opportunity as well. On Sunday evening, we had a conference call with the others attending the SOTU as the first lady's guests.
Very early on Monday morning, I began receiving phone calls from the press about the trip. Since my wife and I hadn't discussed the trip with anyone, I called Bess, who contacted the White House press staff and had them contact me. Not long after that, the Moore City manager let me know the news was public and in USA Today. Lots and lots of phone calls followed; by late Monday afternoon, our travel arrangements were made.
On Tuesday morning, we awoke to news of flights being cancelled due to inclement weather, but we arrived at the airport by 7 a.m. as planned and our flight left on time after a quick de-icing. Our plane landed in D.C. before 2:30 p.m. and we headed straight to the hotel.
We were advised to be at the White House no later than 5 p.m., so 4:30 it was! Everyone gathered at the gate outside the White House and spent the next half hour sharing our excitement while trying to stay warm in the cold Washington air. At a little past 5:00, we were all escorted through security.
Once inside, we began with a tour of the White House, then attended a wonderful reception where we met other guests and visited with White House staff. We met some amazing people and shared stories about our families and life experiences. Among those were Carlos Arredondo and Jeff Bauman, survivors of the Boston Marathon Bombing, and the 2013 Teacher of the Year from D.C., Kathy Hollowell-Makle.
We also had the opportunity to meet Governor Steve Beshear of Kentucky and Vice Admiral Michelle Howard, the first African American female to achieve four-star rank in military history.
The most impressive meeting was with Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, who joined the service on his 18th birthday, had 10 deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, was nearly killed by a roadside bomb and still wants to continue serving his country.
We all had the privilege of meeting and taking photographs with the first lady. Mrs. Obama's first question for me reflected her genuine concern for how the city and the people of Moore are doing.
After that, it was time to head to the Capitol. Participants' guests—my wife and others—would stay at the White House and watch from the first family's theatre room.
We traveled by motorcade from the White House to the Capitol. Upon arrival, we again passed through security and were escorted upstairs. We took our seats in the first lady’s box and waited for the address to begin.
Once again, I met some very wonderful and exciting people. Sitting to my left was Mayor Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco and son of Chinese immigrants; to my right was Antoinette Tuff, a bookkeeper who prevented a school shooting.
Attending the address in person was very different from just watching it at home; this was truly an amazing opportunity and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Following the SOTU, we went downstairs and met with President Obama for photographs. The president recognized me from his visit to Moore after the May 20 tornado; like Mrs. Obama, he was very concerned about how the citizens and the Moore community were doing. I had another chance to speak with the first lady, and then after a brief visit, the motorcade returned us to the White House gate to meet the other guests who were waiting there.
It was late and not a taxi was in sight, so we began our chilly walk back to our hotel; luckily, we spotted a taxi after a block or two and hopped inside. My wife and I got back to the hotel shortly before midnight and stayed up most of the night packing and talking about our exciting evening. We checked out of the hotel the next morning and headed for the airport.
Looking back on this experience, I realize how blessed I am to work for the City of Moore and for a group of people who support me and allow me to represent my city. I am very thankful for being allowed to attend this event and represent the firefighters, police officers, teachers and citizens who responded to Moore and the surrounding area after the devastating event last May. Being a firefighter in and being promoted to fire chief of such a great city has been a blessing; it's truly the greatest job in the world. What a wonderful experience!