WASHINGTON — Whether they watched President Barack Obama take the oath of office from the Capitol grounds or could only hear his address echo through Washington's streets, the Kentuckians who made the pilgrimage to witness history came away dazzled.
Some admitted to choking with emotion. Most said Obama's 18-minute speech and the event's pageantry surpassed their high hopes. All agreed that the crush of humanity that descended upon the National Mall shattered all expectations.
"I'd be hard-pressed to come up with any other event in American history where there were more people there to witness it," said Doug Whitlock, president of Eastern Kentucky University, who was among the lucky few thousand who had tickets to the seated section in front of the Capitol steps. "I've been here a lot of times and have never seen anything like the number of people on the sidewalks and the Metro."
That flood of people helped forge unique memories out of the shared experience.
For instance, Tava Clay of Lexington and Benita Harper of Lancaster, who were among two busloads of Central Kentuckians who traveled to Washington, got separated from the group during their early-morning trek from a hotel in Fairfax, Va.
Foiled by hectic traffic and clogged subway lines, Clay and Harper never made it to the National Mall. Instead, they ducked into a Potbelly Sandwich Works five blocks from the Capitol to watch the event on TV — except the restaurant didn't have any.
Still, they were close enough to hear the crowd and the booming loudspeakers. So they hunkered down with 200 others from Ohio, Minnesota, Arizona and California to listen to the first echo of Obama's historic words.
"You could hear the microphones and the people cheering and yelling. But while President Obama made his speech, it was completely silent," Clay said.
Hardly anyone in the crowd stirred.
"They wanted to listen to what he had to say," said Mary Bradshaw, 61, from Versailles, who was among those from Clay's group who made it to the Capitol. "And then after he was done speaking, they were just applauding, applauding and applauding."
That atmosphere, which alternated between electric and expectant, only underscored the inauguration's significance for African-Americans.
"When Barack was talking about history and how the time has finally come and the new dawn, that's when it started to hit me," said Bo Bogarty, 44, of Lexington. "Here it was, a truly United States. People of all shapes, colors and sizes cheering him, not for his race but for who he is, his character and what he stands for."
Bogarty said his brother asked him why he wanted to stand for hours in the frigid Washington air instead of watching on TV.
"I told him, 'I'm standing for every one of our ancestors who never dreamed of this and all our ancestors in the South who couldn't be here,'" Bogarty said. "America has finally come to a new chapter where we can say we're judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character."
Bogarty admitted he "even cried myself" as he soaked it all in and realized that he could show his children and grandchildren pictures from his vantage point about a football field away from a piece of history. He watched Obama take the oath from in front of the Capitol's Reflecting Pool.
Farther back on the Capitol grounds, 26-year-old Jacqueline Coleman fought intermittent chills of cold and excitement.
Coleman, a teacher from Mercer County and a more recent Obama convert, elbowed her way through the throngs of onlookers by herself in the wee hours of the morning to a spot behind the Capitol's reflection pool.
Although she couldn't make out faces, Coleman could pick out the well-known figures of past presidents on stage, including Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton, the woman whom Coleman supported during last spring's arduous Democratic primary.
She had desperately wanted to see Obama's inauguration ever since he won her over at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where she served as one of Kentucky's delegates.
"It was just kind of surreal," she said. "To watch him get the nomination in Denver and to be here, it's kind of like everything came full circle."
She called Obama's address a bold and honest assessment of the country's place in the world and how its people must rally.
"He alluded to the fact that there were tough times ahead, and we all need to come together. I don't think he really sugarcoated anything," she said. "He pretty much laid it all out there."
Whitlock, EKU's president, said the passing of the presidential torch was "every bit of the spectacle it was supposed to be."
"It was a very powerful setting and so much of American democracy was wrapped up in that act, which we take for granted — this peaceful transfer of power," he said.
Now, he and hundreds of others will return to the Bluegrass State with that moment etched forever in their minds, regardless of whether they saw it up close or heard it outside a sandwich shop.
"We just made this our own special time," Clay said. "We were just happy to be here."