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Wednesday, October 31,2012

The day the president came to town

Local pastor had ringside seat at ground zero

By Jim Phillips

If you've got your own parking spot at work, you probably don't much like strangers using it. You might even grab the phone to call a tow truck.

One local clergyman, though, said he was positively thrilled to find someone else's car in his space last month. And after all, what are the odds on getting President Barack Obama's limousine towed?

"They parked the president's car in my regular spot," recalled the Rev. Philip Foster of the New Life Assembly of God church in Athens. "That's not really a normal thing that happens every day, that you give up your spot for the president's car. But that was pretty cool."

When Obama made his historic appearance on Ohio University's College Green Oct. 17, his army of handlers chose Foster's church, located on South Green Drive near the OU campus, as the staging area for his arrival and transport to the speech site.

That meant some disruption for New Life Assembly, including the canceling of a scheduled daytime service – but it also meant a unique and memorable experience for Foster and his wife, Julie, who threw open the church to Obama's entourage to use as a rest-stop and base of operations.

Foster was contacted days ahead of the visit. On hearing the president was coming, the pastor asked not what his country could do for his church, but what his church could do for the country.

"I told the Secret Service guys that anything we could do, we were willing to be a part of it," he said. In the run-up to the visit, Foster added, New Life Assembly was filled with Secret Service, soldiers, police officers, and all the other factotums who follow the president in a swarm whenever he moves.

"They all came in and were hanging out and eating dinner," Foster said. "And so it was a lot of fun… "We were just trying to be hospitable to all of the support people."

Though many members of his congregation had tickets to see the president speak outside OU's Memorial Auditorium, he said, for security reasons only Foster and his wife got to be at the church when he actually arrived.

"The Secret Service just has such a responsibility to secure everything," he explained. "They really didn't want us to (say), 'Hey, everybody, come over here.'"

Not surprisingly, Foster said, the people who called him to make arrangements for the visit already knew plenty of information about him. "I said, 'I'm glad I was able to pass the muster of the Secret Service," he recalled, laughing.

Foster got to watch the dry run for the president's arrival, complete with helicopter, a couple days before the real thing. Through that rehearsal and the actual visit, he said, he was mightily impressed by the Swiss-watch efficiency of the men and women assigned to keep the president safe and on time. Not to mention the size of their arsenal.

"Another thing that was really amazing to me is just the level of thoroughness these guys had," he said.

As for the president's complement of bodyguards, he added, they "almost looked like a Navy Seal team. They were packing enough firepower to probably hold off a small army. When these guys got out, they were locked and loaded!" Security arrangements included snipers posted at strategic locations; Foster called this group "probably the most serious of all the guys that were there."

Though the Fosters were instructed to stay inside the church as the president got off the Marine One helicopter and quickly into the limo, the Rev. Foster did get a chance beforehand to check out the president's awesome ride, and chat with his driver.

"I got a chance to look inside the limousine, and it kind of looked like what you would expect," he said. "(The driver) actually was kind of having fun with me… He asked me if I would close the door. That is the biggest car door you will ever try to shut in your life! It is massive!...You couldn't shoot a bazooka through that."

According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, the vehicle is "a Chevrolet Kodiak-based, Cadillac-badged limousine, often referred to as Cadillac One and occasionally as Limo One… or as The Beast." Extras include a night-vision system, special run-flat tires, sealing against biochemical attacks, and in the trunk, a stock of the president's blood type.

Foster recalled the presidential support team as "just really good people, outstanding people. They were very nice; they were very respectful."

The pastor estimated that his congregation doesn't lean heavily either blue or red; he estimated it's about "a 50/50 split." He added that he would never try to use the pulpit to tell anyone how to vote.

"We just don't do politics here," he explained.

And whatever your party, Foster said, seeing the president of the United States is exciting.

"Absolutely," he said. "It's like a once-in-a-lifetime experience; to have a sitting president come to Athens is I think a pretty big deal… It was a pretty nice day, I'll tell you."


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