That’s a headline we haven’t seen in 42 years, until Oct. 1. After just a week of frantic preparations across town, President Donald Trump stepped on stage at Freedom Hall in front of thousands of people — those inside the packed venue, in the overflow area in the auxiliary gym down the hall (where he stopped in to speak to the crowd before going on stage) and the estimated 20,000 outside watching on a big screen. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Freedom Hall’s official estimate of those who watched on screens outside the arena was between 1,500 and 2,000 people).
Thousands more watched live coverage on television.
Hundreds of others had lined the route from Tri-Cities Airport to Freedom Hall to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade — an unforgettable sight in and of itself.
Tickets to the rally were free and 92,000 were claimed by the time the rally began — the highest number of any Trump rally anywhere in the country. Of course, Freedom Hall is likely one of the smaller venues he has visited, holding less than 9,000 people.
Some tickets were claimed by liberals, thinking they would take as many tickets as possible and the venue would be close to empty. Nice try, slugger, but you struck out.
I had the opportunity to volunteer at the rally and it was a truly incredible experience.
When I arrived for my 2:30 volunteer call time, there were already thousands of people lined up. There was a tailgate-type vibe in the air — everyone was having fun, despite the warm sun and long wait. The excitement was palpable.
After receiving credentials and assignments and as soon as the final U.S. Secret Service sweeps of the building were complete, teams of volunteers were allowed inside around 3:15. I spent the next three and a half hours experiencing the ins and outs of a massive political rally.
I helped direct folks to sections for seating, assisted others in finding accessible seats, answered dozens of questions, met hundreds of people and made countless new friends. As the venue began to fill up, excitement grew. There was a sense of community and camaraderie even among strangers.
I saw thousands of people as they came through the doors and 95 percent of them were polite, kind and excited. A few seemed understandably frazzled by the long wait and large crowd, but not a single one was truly rude. Law enforcement, first responders and the dozens of Secret Service officers and police were incredibly nice, helpful and jovial. The positive vibe radiated throughout the entire place.
Later, I got to move outside the front doors to help direct folks inside and eventually to the gym for overflow. Finally, as the speakers began taking the stage, volunteers were free to find a spot and await the president. I was able to stand on the arena floor not more than 20 feet from the stage.
After hearing from Rep. Phil Roe, Gov. Bill Haslam and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee, a few minutes of music helped keep the crowd pumped up and ready. Then, to the strains of “God Bless the U.S.A.,” President Trump stepped onto stage, where he accepted a Tennessee Volunteers T-shirt and proudly showed it off to the screaming crowd.
For the better part of an hour, this 72-year-old man spoke with the passion and energy of one half his age. He introduced U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn, for whom he was stumping. She spoke to the crowd for a few minutes and turned the podium back to the president. He touched on a little bit of everything in his remarks, but what impressed me was his ability to interact with the crowd. He probably gives roughly the same speech at all of his rallies, but he expertly plays to the crowd he has, feeds off their energy and responds to many of the comments he hears.
The energy of the crowd was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There was so much excitement, patriotism and happiness. When I finished my volunteer duties, I stopped to buy a drink from the concession stand on my way in to the arena. Unfortunately, I could hear but not see the national anthem being sung, but concession sales halted and everyone in line sang along with the folks inside the arena. At the risk of sounding maudlin, it was a magical moment.
It’s not often that a sitting president comes to your hometown; for most people, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. At a time like that, politics should be set aside and we should all be honored to host the leader of the free world in our wonderful community. Those who were excited to see the president outnumbered protestors by the tens of thousands and Johnson City surely made President Trump feel welcome.
I’m grateful I had the opportunity to be slightly on the inside of the event and to be part of something so much bigger than myself. I may never have the chance to see a president in person again, especially at a location just minutes from home. It was an experience I will never forget.
Rebecca Horvath of Johnson City is a wife, mother and community activist. Reach her at [email protected]