Sometimes when good things come in small packages they get unwrapped by big people. This week the biggest of the big, President Barack Obama came to the small campus of Northern Michigan University in the little town of Marquette to reveal to the nation a hi-tech goody box of big ideas.
A few years back NMU partnered with local government and businesses to create a wireless Internet connection accessible in a 40-mile radius of campus. It’s called WiMAX, and I don’t want to get bogged down in the techy details, actually I’m not so sure I understand the techy details, but basically NMU has this system that allows their students and staff, plus regional K-12 students and emergency services to tap the Web from the hinterlands. Apparently NMU is currently the only campus that has such a large-scale system like this and that got Obama’s attention.
He liked what he saw and wants to see it blossom across the rural countryside bringing change in the way the railroads, rural electrification and the interstate highway system did. Like those past initiatives, he thinks it’s going to take federal dollars, and that’s where big ideas seem to get wedged between the rocks and hard places of Washington these days.
But let’s steer clear of the political and technical wonkety-wonk, and focus on what it’s like to have the sitting president pay a visit to a town of about 20,000 folks in the Upper Peninsula. I was hired by NMU to photograph the president’s visit, which was by invitation only and limited to about 1,000 NMU students and community leaders—a bit of a sore spot with many folks eager to see this bit of local history unfold.
Folks lined the streets along the routes. Snowmobilers stopped to gawk. Kids skipped school to wave hello and goodbye to the speeding black SUVs. Even a gal with tinfoil in her hair stepped out of a salon to catch a glimpse.
Obama rolled into town, and surprised everyone with a quick stop at the historic Doncker’s candy store in downtown on Washington Street. Throughout his Marquette visit the president highlighted some of our businesses like Getz’s clothiers that are succeeding by using Internet sales to grow, create jobs and keep families together in the tightly knit U.P. He seemed to grasp that all too often folks must leave the rural areas and people they love in order to pay the bills, and thinks ideas like NMU’s WiMax and greater rural access to high speed Internet is a large part of the answer.
At NMU the president saw WiMAX in operation, as students from two K-12 classrooms beamed in from Negaunee High School and tiny Powell Township School in Big Bay. Obama got the pronunciation of “Negaunee” right, but flubbed a couple Finnish surnames. Forgivable, since even locals don’t always get them right.
The WiMax path from NMU to Big Bay bounces off a lighthouse in Marquette and across about 30 miles of Lake Superior to the Powell Township Water Tower. During the demonstration Obama referenced a large map created by my good friend Cameron Fuess at Greenstone Mapping. Obama said it felt like Star Trek, with him getting beamed around the rugged uplands of Marquette County.
Down in Vandment Arena, NMU’s volleyball facility, the buzz and hum melted away for me as I got down to work with a big lens from the designated media area on stage right. I’d like to say I’ll remember the president’s remarks, but the truth is when I’m working the world melts away and gets pared down to brief flashes seen with tunnel vision. It’s all glowing red focus points, depth of field considerations and a delicate dance of fleeting moments of facial expression and body language.
For me, the day was good, with a variety of tight, sharp images of one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever photographed. NMU got the nod it deserved for pioneering a potentially paradigm shifting technology for the rural economic landscape. President Obama got to witness first hand the persevering spirit of the rural North in what, I have to believe, must have been a breath of fresh air among the current trials of economic and international affairs.
It’s a family atmosphere up here, and always hard to see folks leave, but like a friend at my local grocery store said, “Maybe next time he’ll stay for sauna, eh.”
Aaron Peterson is a freelance writer/photographer/toddler wrangler based near Marquette. For a gallery of images from President Obama’s visit to Marquette see www.aaronpeterson.net/NMU/Obama.html