VILONIA — Vilonia Superintendent Frank Mitchell went to get a camera and waited with eager administrators, students and staff Wednesday to get a glimpse of President Barack Obama as he landed at the middle school.
“This is exciting!” a teacher said. “Hope not too exciting,” Mitchell answered.
As it turned out, students peering out the cafeteria windows and the crowd sequestered behind a gate saw only impressive helicopters land and black SUVs — which appeared almost like magic out of the woods — speeding away.
They cheered anyway, as the sight unfolded.
Obama was touring the area and talking with victims of the April 27 tornado, which killed 12 people in Faulkner County: nine in Vilonia and three in Mayflower.
A lot of planning had to be done in advance of Obama’s visit to Vilonia, including Mitchell meeting with the Secret Service for a couple of hours Monday and Tuesday to discuss routes and particulars.
“I’ve been so impressed with the Secret Service people we have talked to,” Mitchell said. “They’re just everyday folks.”
With a few differences, such as big weapons.
“We’re trying to get a new roof on that cafeteria,” Mitchell said. “They are going to be up there working, and those Secret Service guys, they don’t like anybody being up on the roof. They said if you have anybody on the roof, we’re going to have snipers aiming up there.”
He said the construction workers decided to take a break around 12:30-1 p.m., the time Obama was to land.
Teachers were wearing school-themed T-shirts or were “dolled up” for the event, as Tambra Kinley called it, laughing.
Kinley, a fifth-grade science teacher, said she and running-club students got a “semi-show” Monday when helicopters landed in a trial run.
She said a man she didn’t know asked if her students could run a different route because of the debris the helicopters would throw about. She said five helicopters landed, and people got out of the aircraft and scurried around.
“That was very awesome for the kids to see that. They were a little shocked and surprised. We didn’t know what was happening,” Kinley said. “It is intimidating.”
On Wednesday, the day of Obama’s visit, Kinley said, her students were working in the classroom near a window, which was open a crack.
Two men opened a white minivan, she said, put on vests and were putting together “equipment.”
“My students said, ‘Mrs. Kinley, they have guns over here,’” she said, so she told her students to move away from the window. “When the men saw the students, they packed up and moved,” she said.
No one could be outside when the helicopters landed, so people who didn’t have to be in class at that time gathered in an area outside the middle school playground, near the cafeteria, behind a closed floor-to-ceiling metal fence.
“Never in my life would I think a president would be landing in Vilonia, Arkansas,” said Steve Austin, a Vilonia police officer, as he talked to people through the fence. “Never in my lifetime.”
At least a dozen Arkansas Game and Fish Commission law-enforcement trucks were on-site, as well as a firetruck and ambulances. A law-enforcement dog was brought through the field before the president’s arrival.
As student Parker Hall, 12, waited, he educated people about what he thought the significance was of the different vehicles arriving.
“The SUVs, I’m pretty sure, are FBI. The big black armored trucks are SWAT, and the white are CIA. They prefer lighter cars,” he said. “I read a lot of books,” Parker said as an explanation of his information.
“I hear it! He’s coming!” Parker said as helicopters were heard in the distance.
It was a false alarm that time.
“It’s like we’re waiting on Santa Claus on Christmas morning!” fifth-grade teacher Lori Barton said, laughing.
Debbie Knowles, curriculum specialist for K-7, said she was teaching civics when Obama was running for president.
“What a teachable moment this would be to be back in the classroom,” Knowles said.
One student said of the president’s visit, “I don’t like Obama that much, but I guess it’s pretty cool.”
Reagan Bates, 12, said, “[It is] exciting because I’ve never met a president in my life before, or seen one.”
Asked what she would say to Obama, if she did meet him, Reagan thought a few seconds.
“It was a privilege, that even though this is a really small town, that he took his time to come,” she said.
Teachers said that when they heard the president was coming, they talked a lot with students about “respect” and being on their best behavior.
Sixth-grade science teacher Whitney Carden said she told her students, “You don’t have to agree with him, but it’s like respecting the principal, the teacher or your parents,” she said.
Fifth-grade literacy teacher Cynthia Edwards said, “I’m hoping he’ll get to meet some victims of the tornado.”
After Obama was on his way, a Secret Service agent came up to the fence and told Vilonia Middle School Principal Lori Lombardi that “because you guys are giving us the ability to be on your field,” students could walk around the circle driveway to look at the helicopters.
However, he said the students couldn’t get on the grass and could not approach the aircraft, or “we will have to ….” He stopped, smiled slightly and said, “redirect them.”
When asked if he liked Arkansas, he said, “I live here.”
Mitchell said later that some people were able to get near and even climb into the helicopters.
“They said they weren’t going to do that,” he said.
Grade by grade, the students walked the circle drive and marveled at the aircraft.
“The planes are ginormous,” one student said.
“It’s awesome,” said Bailey Brown, a sixth-grader.
“I got to see him land from the window,” said Riley Rexroat, another sixth-grader.
Several people were disappointed that they didn’t actually see the president.
Linda Hicks of Conway, who said she had been at events featuring several former presidents, was one.
“Bill Clinton would have waved,” she said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.