Inspired to action - Local man met former president ‘1-1/2 times’

The Warren Sentinel

FRONT ROYAL — Serendipity is a funny thing. So was the television show Jarred Hill worked on as a favor for a friend while attending Columbia College Chicago more than a decade ago.

And, apparently, so was then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, who is serving his last full day as president today.

As Obama's second and final term wound down, Hill — a local resident also known as Parson Brown — reflected on meeting the president "1-1/2 times."

The first time was shortly after he arrived in Chicago from Front Royal to study film and video production at Columbia College Chicago.

One day, a friend needed somebody to fill in on a student-produced comedy skit program. Hill was happy to help.

After wrapping up the show, he and his friends were hanging out in the hall when a guy in a suit approached them, accompanied by a small entourage.

"We all just sort of jaw-dropped," Hill said.

By that time, Obama had delivered a widely praised speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston and had announced his intention to run for U.S. Senate. His gravitas was evident to Hill from the moment they shook hands.

"I remember calling my mom in Front Royal and saying 'I think he's going to be the next president,'" Hill said.

The mid 2000s was an exciting time to be in the Windy City, Hill said. The state senator who had lost a U.S. Senate primary in 2000 ascended to the highest office in the land just eight years later.

"The whole city was just going nuts for Obama," he said.

Hill was in Chicago for Obama's dominant U.S. Senate win in 2004 over Republican Alan Keyes, a replacement candidate for Jack Ryan, who had withdrawn amid scandal in July.

While he never formally worked for the Obama campaigns — for Senate or president — Hill was an ardent supporter. He took his inspiration from Obama's previous job — as a community organizer.

With inspiration from a future president and an interest in preserving the environment, Hill joined the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, which aimed to shut down coal-fired power plants in the Chicago area. It was successful in getting two plants decommissioned, Hill said. Edison Mission energy shuttered the Fisk and Crawford power plants in 2012, citing the prohibitively high cost of upgrades to make them comply with federal pollution standards.

"I'm very proud of that," Hill said.

From there, Hill joined Topless America, an environmentalist-artist collective that opposes strip-mining. The "Topless" in the nomenclature refers to the top of a mountain removed in the mining process. He has lobbied lawmakers in Washington on behalf of that organization, which led to the "half" time he met Obama.

He was meeting with staffers on a sweltering day in Washington. Being in the basement of an old Senate office building didnít make it any more comfortable, he said. Once again, in the hallway, Hill noticed a familiar guy in a suit down the hall with a larger entourage. He recognized the man as the junior senator from Illinois.

Hill broke into a dash down the hall as Obama and his entourage entered an elevator. However, he knew that he could not make it before the doors closed. He also knew that he might get tackled by Secret Service agents before he and the senator could get reacquainted.

So he did the next best thing; he removed a Topless America button from his lapel and flung it "Frisbee style" into the elevator.

Then the doors closed, taking the junior senator from Illinois on to other business. Within a couple of years, he would be elected president of the United States.

Hill said he is proud of the job Obama did for eight years.

"No leadership is perfect, but the man — as a man — inspired me," he said."The dignity he at least attempted to portray to our nation really spoke to me."

Hill's activism has continued locally. In addition to serving as Topless America's executive creative director, he has helped to organize the Shenandoah Valley Unity March, scheduled from noon to 3 p.m. Friday — the same time as Donald Trump's inauguration — at the East Luray Shopping Center in Luray.

The event is billed as a nonpartisan celebration of diversity. Former Democratic congressional candidate Kai Degner and march organizer Sherry Ford are scheduled to speak.

People of all races, religions, genders, sexual orientations and political persuasions are encouraged to attend because our society needs people to come together, Hill said.

"Don't let yourself be divided," he said. "We've been there, done that. That's not where I would hope our nation goes."

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