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Witness to history
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January 20, 2009 is a work day Covington resident Toney Collins will always remember. Not only because he witnessed the inauguration of our nation’s first black president, but because he experienced it from a location—and a perspective—seen only by a select few in our nation.

"I was on the platform most of the time," said Collins. "When I first got up there and the people started crowding in, I tried not to look because I was getting a little emotional. So I had to look away until I could handle it. I really felt like it was back at the time when Martin Luther King was there doing his speech and all the people were there."

As a captain in the Air Force Reserve, Collins worked during the inauguration, serving as the officer in charge of the joint ushers. His mission was to oversee the more than 200 soldiers from different services who served as ushers during the inauguration.

"Our guys seated the guests on the West Front and they helped usher them in and out. They also helped seat the VIPs on the platform," Collins said.

While Collins was working, he said it took a little discipline to stay focused and on task.

"You had all of these people around you that you read about or have seen on the news like Colin Powell and Muhammad Ali. You couldn’t help but be a little excited. But at the same time, I had a mission to do so I had to stay focused most of the time."

In addition to overseeing the ushers, Collins also had the responsibility of escorting California Senator Dianne Feinstein to her seat on the platform. The assignment gave him the opportunity to meet other dignitaries, including two former U.S. Presidents

"When I waiting to escort Senator Feinstein, I shook hands with Jimmy Carter and Bush 41," said Collins. "A lot of the guys were very cordial, especially the former presidents."

While Collins did not meet President Obama during the inauguration, he did get the chance to meet him a couple of weeks prior to the inauguration when the then president-elect stopped by the office to thank the members of the committee for the job they were doing.

"He’s a very nice guy and very cordial. He seems like a people person," Collins said. "He was that image that’s larger than life, but when he shook your hand and talked with you, he was like a regular person."

Collins learned in September that he had been given the historic assignment after a fellow serviceman had to drop out of the position.

"When I got picked, I was overwhelmed with joy," said Collins. "When the slot opened up, I volunteered and I got picked from all of the Air Force. So that was amazing within itself."

President Obama’s swearing-in was the first inauguration Collins attended and he said it will probably be the most memorable for him.

"Being a black man, you’ve got to feel different about having a minority president. For years I’ve seen all the pictures of the presidents on the wall, and to finally see a picture of a black president on the wall, you can’t help but feel special and feel proud." Collins said.

Collins said the experience is one he will cherish for the rest of his life, and one that he thinks will have a positive effect on children as they grow up in a country with a black president at the helm.

"I grew up during a time when there weren’t a lot of black role models in government," said Collins. "We’ve had images of rappers, football players, basketball players, movie stars, but when it comes to country leaders, we haven’t had many images of people of color. Now we have that."