For USW member Tim Wheeler and his family, today's inauguration of President-Elect Barack Obama is especially moving. As told by their local newspaper, the Galesburg Register-Mail, the Wheelers have a special bond with Obama that started when he as an Illinois State Senator and Wheeler, whose son had a liver transplate, was facing layoff and the loss of health care.
Reporter Jane Carlson recalls the emotional relationship in an article you can read on the Galesburg Register-Mail Web site.
GALESBURG — A years-long friendship between a local steelworker’s family and the nation’s first African-American president started with an emotional plea one spring afternoon in 2004 on Grand Avenue in Galesburg.
Longtime Butler employee Tim Wheeler and his wife, Diana, arrived at the Labor Temple to meet with Barack Obama, a state senator from Chicago who was running for U.S. Senate.
Tim had been selected to represent United Steelworkers Local 2629 at the informal meeting, which was attended by a handful of local factory workers, union reps and government officials. He had worked for Butler Manufacturing for the better part of three decades — but the end was in sight, as Butler had announced just weeks earlier that the Galesburg plant would stop production the next year, putting hundreds more area families out of work.
For the Wheelers, the news was particularly devastating.
Their then-19-year-old son Marcus was in need of a liver transplant. Fears of losing the family’s source of income were compounded by fears of not being able to get insurance, medical care or medications for Marcus.
“I just started breaking down,” said Tim, who approached Obama that afternoon at the Labor Temple to tell him the family’s story.
Marcus, who had just completed his first year at the University of Illinois, already was on his second liver and depended on thousands of dollars a month in prescription drugs. The initial transplant had been successful for a while, but his condition was deteriorating due to a clot in the new liver.
Several months later, Tim and Diana were watching Obama speak at the Democratic National Convention from their Alpha home, a performance that is considered the rising political star’s first moment in the national spotlight.
Their ears perked up when they heard Obama mention “the workers in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs,” but that didn’t prepare them for what came next, when Obama mentioned “the father that I met who was losing his job and choking back the tears, wondering how he would pay $4,500 a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits he counted on.”
“We were quite shocked actually,” Tim said. “We were sitting in our recliners and we just started crying.”
Being mentioned in Obama’s convention speech convinced the Wheelers to attend a campaign rally the following weekend in Kewanee. Tim again approached Obama, this time asking the future president if he remembered meeting him several months before — and he did.
“He told me, ‘I want you to know. Every day I say a prayer for Marcus,’” Tim said.
The day was a little foggy for Marcus, who was experiencing complications from his first transplant, but his impressions of Obama were clear.
“He was sincere,” said Marcus, who will graduate this spring from the U of I, and now is on his fourth liver. “He was real sympathetic to what I was going through. I had been to other rallies and met other candidates. None of them had ever come across as sincere. This was the first candidate I ever felt a personal connection with. He cared about my personal story.”
On that day in Kewanee, Obama gave Tim and Marcus his e-mail address, and told them to keep him posted on Marcus’ condition. Marcus never e-mailed the senator, but Tim kept in touch, sending him e-mails about Marcus every few months — and always getting a response, usually from Obama’s infamous BlackBerry.
The Wheelers didn’t know it at the time, but Obama was telling their story on the campaign trail all over the state. But it didn’t seem fake or forced to the Wheelers, who believed Obama truly was interested in their well-being.
Once, when Marcus was undergoing treatment at University of Chicago Hospitals, Tim saw Michelle Obama in a hallway, and made a point to introduce himself. Michelle told him that Barack talked about the family all of the time, praying for their situation to work out for the best.
The following spring, after Obama was elected senator, Marcus showed up early to an event at the University of Illinois, where Obama was speaking about Pell Grants. Marcus got a front-row seat — and was surprised that the senator instantly recognized him.
Before Obama began his speech, he mouthed the words “Hi, Marcus. How are you?” Afterwards, before he took questions from the press, Obama stepped off the stage to ask Marcus how things were going.
By that time, Tim was done working at Butler, and soon would be hired at Caterpillar in Peoria, avoiding a long-term lapse in coverage that could have financially devastated the family — or prevented Marcus from getting the care he needed.
But that wasn’t the end of the Wheelers’ friendship with Obama. In the summer of 2006 — just a couple months after Marcus received his second and third transplants — Tim got an e-mail from Obama, asking if he could tell their story in his new book, “The Audacity of Hope.”
The Wheelers agreed.
“I told him he could use whatever he wanted,” Tim said.
When the book came out, the family went to a local bookstore, checked in the index — and then excitedly bought several copies. The story of how being laid off from Butler affected the family was the focus of a three-page section in the book, and was mentioned several other times as well.
“It was unbelievable,” Marcus said. “A lot of politicians tell stories. It seems a lot of those stories are made up sometimes. But we know it’s most definitely not made up because it’s our story.”
Later, both Marcus and Tim received autographed copies of “The Audacity of Hope” from Obama, with a note that read: “Tim — Here are books for you and Marcus. I appreciate your friendship and am rooting for you all the way.” The inscription in the book for Tim read: “Tim, Thanks for your strength, passion and friendship! With admiration, Barack Obama.”
The last time Tim e-mailed Obama was right after the presidential election. He told him congratulations, offered him condolences on the death of his grandmother — and told him to be careful.
On Nov. 9, 2008, Tim got an e-mail back from Obama, thanking him for his friendship and correspondence — and letting him know that his e-mail address would soon be discontinued for security purposes, but that the family would be able to get in touch with him at any time through his assistant.
Marcus’ health is now good, and he plans to graduate in the spring, then attend Eastern Illinois University in the fall.
Tim describes the whole experience of meeting and corresponding Obama as “thrilling.”
“Marcus is special to him,” Tim said.