Speaking to a packed crowd of roughly 1,400 people Friday at a fundraiser for congressional candidate and state Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Peoria, President Bush received great applause when he talked about the war on terror and standing on principle, even if it meant not being popular.
Freedom not only in America but throughout the world was the theme of the day for President Bush.
Speaking to a packed crowd of roughly 1,400 people Friday at a fundraiser for congressional candidate and state Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Peoria, the president received great applause when he talked about the war on terror and standing on principle, even if it meant not being popular.
Bush shared a story of one of his best moments as president when he met with the premier of Japan, according people who attended. Sixty years ago, Bush’s father flew planes in WWII against the Japanese. Now the United States and Japan sit together as allies, the president said.
Sixty years from now, Bush said, he hopes people will thank God the nation had the courage to promote freedom.
He also touched on a variety of other hot-button issues, including energy and the need to diversify resources and enhance oil availability in the United States, the power of overseas markets and the economy.
"He was very passionate about freedom, democracy and what it means for this country and why it’s important to elect Aaron as our next congressman," said Darin LaHood, the Republican candidate for Peoria County state’s attorney.
Schock called the president’s whirlwind visit to Peoria solely for political purposes "humbling."
"Here’s the leader of the free world taking time out of his schedule. It is truly an honor," Schock said, adding his first vote for president was for Bush and now Bush is speaking on his behalf for Congress only eight years later.
Bush touched down at the Air National Guard Base in Bartonville at 11:31 a.m., just minutes before of his scheduled arrival and with little fanfare, with the exception of dozens of police, Secret Service agents, the media and about two dozen lucky onlookers allowed near the runway.
As he stepped onto the red carpeted stairs in his gray suit and electric blue tie, he gave his characteristic wave before greeting eight people standing in a receiving line.
First to welcome him were Col. William Robertson, commander of the 182nd Airlift Wing, and Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Eakle, command chief of the 182nd. Others in line included Schock, LaHood, East Peoria Mayor Dave Mingus, Eureka Mayor Scott Punke and retired longtime Harrison Primary School Principal Aurthur Perkins. Bush spent the most time speaking with Perkins, whom he met on one of his three trips to Peoria in the past eight years.
"We talked about his trip to Harrison, when he came to Harrison and how he began his presidential career at that specific time," Perkins said of Bush’s 2000 visit as a candidate. "He said, ‘Are you still there?’ and I said ‘No, I’m retired,’ and he said, ‘I will follow you in six months.’"
Bush spoke with Perkins for about a minute, shaking her hand and clasping it with his as the pair laughed and chatted over the whine of the engines.
Punke said he introduced himself and said he thought Bush was doing a "great job."
"He thanked me for my services as being a mayor and told me was having a lot of fun as president," Punke said.
Bush also honored Roy Storey of Peoria with his Presidential Volunteer Service Award.
Minutes later, Bush jumped into his limo and it sped off to Weaver Farms.
Twenty minutes was all it took to travel to the fundraiser in Peoria.
The motorcade had about 20 vehicles, including Illinois State Police, white, 10-passenger vans, sport utility vehicles and a couple of ambulances. It exited the Air Guard base from the runway and onto Dirksen Parkway. From there, Airport Road and onto Interstate 474 before getting onto Illinois Route 6 and finally U.S. Route 150.
Along the way, the motorcade passed a few hundred people lined up on Route 150 and in parking lots of nearby stores. Most waved, some carried welcome signs. There were reports from onlookers of protesters, but they could not be seen from the motorcade.
Along the way, Schock, who rode in the limousine with the president and his political director and LaHood, said they talked about his congressional race and the national political scene. Schock said he asked for advice on staying grounded.
"I asked him in eight years in being president how he handled the stress and the time demands," Schock said.
Schock said Bush talked about the importance of faith and family and having certain touchstones to come back to.
"That was probably one of the most memorable experiences from the day. To be one on one with the president in the vehicle talking about things that are going on around the world."
Bush also talked about his visits to Peoria. The most recent one was in January 2007 when he toured Caterpillar Inc. and stopped at Sterling Family Restaurant for toast.
LaHood said he mostly listened during the ride. "It was an absolute thrill to be asked to ride in the motorcade with the president. He couldn’t have been nicer or more gracious."
At Weaver Farms
More than an hour before Bush was expected to step foot in central Illinois Friday morning, the area around Weaver Farms was abuzz with activity.
At least 20 dump trucks lined the perimeter of Weaver Farms as a security precaution, blocking onlookers’ view of the property. Police on golf carts zipped around the property, and Route 150 starting at the intersection of Willow Knolls Road and Big Hollow Road was blocked off. A large construction sign warned people approaching Orange Prairie Road not to stop.
Formally dressed guests started arriving about 8 a.m. in the parking lot of the L.R. Nelson Corp., across the street from Weaver Farms.
Between 1,200 and 1,400 vehicles quickly filled the lot and spilled onto the grass. The guests registered at a sign-in tent before being shuttled to the farm, where music could be heard playing from across the street.
Doors to the fundraiser opened at 9 a.m. and the last shuttle, taking the six parking attendants and the last arriving guests, left about 11 a.m.
Schock said about 100 people just showed up at the door with a $500 check in hand. Though the event was at capacity, organizers scrambled to find extra chairs.
The no-reservation arrivals were told they could get in but wouldn’t be able to sit at a table or get a plate of food. They didn’t mind. After all, this was the president of the United States.
Kent and Kristin Boyer of Peoria Heights decided to purchase the $500 tickets to the fundraiser instead of buying the new water heater they needed.
"This is a chance of a lifetime, an experience I will never forget. It would be neat to shake his hand. I don’t know what I’ll say," Kent Boyer.
"It’s very, very emotional to be around someone of that stature," his wife said.
The crowd mingled, listened to country singer Lee Greenwood and at 11:55 a.m. — roughly a half-hour after Air Force One first touched down — the motorcade crossed the wrought iron fence and pulled into Weaver Farms.
There were no surprise stops along the way.
The press was not allowed into the event and was ushered into a separate home secluded from the sights and sounds of the event. The president stayed for about 11⁄2 hours, spoke and took pictures for $5,000 each with an estimated 100 people.
For their $500 tickets, the crowd also enjoyed filet mignon shisk-ka-bobs from Alwan & Sons meat market, along with rice, fruit and cheesecake. They heard brief speeches from some local dignitaries before the president, who spoke for between 30 and 50 minutes — depending on whom you talked to inside the gates.
"His speech should galvanize the Republican base here in Peoria. It brought energy to the crowd," said Peoria attorney Jeff Hall.
The president was impressed.
"He commented several times on the way (back to the Air Guard base) about the crowd and how excited he was for me that we had such a great turnout," Schock said. "That speaks well for our community and probably a reason why he came back because of the reception he received."
Before boarding Air Force One back to Washington, D.C., Bush stopped to mingle with a crowd of about 100 waiting at the Air National Guard base. Guardsmen and their families were invited to watch the president’s arrival and departure.
He shook hands, gave autographs, kissed babies and had some brief conversations.
Five-month-old Evan Price won’t remember being picked from the crowd and being cuddled by the leader of the free world, but his mother, Master Sgt. Helena Price, won’t forget it.
"I’ll remember this for the rest of my life. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Unbelievable," Price said.
Nineteen-year-old Kristen Thurston of Washington shook hands with the president.
"He’s very personable and seems like a really down-to-earth guy. He really stopped to talk to people; it wasn’t just a quick walk," Thurston said.
Patty Wilkinson of Wyoming also got the opportunity to see the president depart from Peoria thanks to her son, a senior airman with the Air National Guard.
"It’s the chance of a lifetime. We’ll never get this close to the president again so that’s why we came down," she said.
Though she was not close enough to see Bush up close and personal, her 21-year-old son, Travis, was standing near the airstrip and was able to shake hands with the president.
"It was an exhilarating experience. It’s something, as a Guardsman here, you never expect to do," he said.
"You met your commander in chief and not too many service members get to do that."
After 10 minutes, Bush boarded the plane. At 1:57 p.m., Air Force One hit the skies. The total visit lasted roughly 21⁄2 hours — about the time it took the president to travel from Washington, D.C., to Peoria.
Peoria attorney Kevin Sullivan snapped a picture of Air Force One landing at the airport and within an hour, he was back at his Downtown office, printing the picture on his computer. Later, he was at the Peoria County Courthouse, where a few people got to see the 8-by-10 glossy picture of arguably the most famous Boeing 747 on the planet.
Sullivan said this was his third time seeing a president land at the airport, having been there to see Presidents Ford and Reagan arrive, but this was his first time with a 747. The other planes were 707s, a smaller version.
"Seeing that lettering United States of America and realizing what the plane stood for, it was awe-striking," he said.
Sullivan got on the tarmac through the graces of a friend. He also managed to finagle a trip to the end of the runway before the plane landed for an up-close shot and then made it back in time to see the motorcade assemble.
For him, it’s not about the man in office but the office itself and the precision and the machinery that accompany such a visit. It never gets old, he said.
"When you can see Washington, D.C., come to Peoria, Illinois, it is quite a sight," he said.
Karen McDonald can be reached at 686-3285 or email@example.com. Leslie Fark, Andy Kravetz, Frank Radosevich and Erin Wood contributed to this report.