Inaugural scenes: In Hindman, the economy is the main concern

HINDMAN — Judge Patton, his real name, is crossing the parking lot at the Knott County Human Services Center about the same time that Barack Obama's swearing-in is being broadcast on a big-screen television inside the lobby of the building.

"I ain't much interested in it," says Patton, who delivers hot meals to homebound senior citizens, "but I voted for that man. I believe he'll make us a good president. Sure, he's the first black man ever elected, but I think he'll want to get re-elected, so I believe he'll do a good job — just to prove himself."

Like many in Hindman, Patton is aware that Knott County, with 11,246 registered Democrats and only 505 Republicans, voted for John McCain, the Republican candidate, by a 3,070-to-2,621 margin in last year's general election.

"I'm not prejudiced," Patton says, smiling, "but I'd say there's a lot of them in there that is."

If so, it is not immediately apparent. In a corner of the center, five women — three with hair as white as the snow falling outside — huddle around the TV. They talk about the weather and nothing else.

So, if you are looking for that last outpost of bigotry in Kentucky during the inauguration, this small Eastern Kentucky county with a nationally known small college is not the place to look.

"We've had three months to get used to the notion of having a black man for our president," says Steve Burrill, 33, over lunch at Hindman's Appalachian Artisan Center. "Everyone has already adjusted to it in their heads. We've already come to the reality that's what it is. Now we have to move forward."

Public schools are closed in Knott County today, and Alice Lloyd College at Pippa Passes is registering students for the second semester. No formal ceremonies or demonstrations are conducted, but at home and in public buildings and restaurants, residents pause to watch Obama's swearing-in ceremony and at least part of his acceptance speech.

"President Obama has so much on his shoulders," Burrill says. "He's got to be Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. combined. He's got to pick up the economy and deal with a country that essentially is in transition. ... He's seen as a pragmatist president at a time when we need a pragmatist — he seems to understand that good is not the enemy of perfect. We need results."

At Alice Lloyd College, the dean of students, Scott Cornett, says most incoming students are watching the inauguration on TV in their rooms or student center. The school has about 550 students this semester, he says, including about 10 who are black.

"I think there was as much interest in this election this year as I've ever seen," Cornett says, "but the main issues were the economy and the wars, not race ... I don't hear those issues like I used to.

"I think people now are curious — on the edge of their seats, really — and hoping that, overall, things will improve for them. It's not been too good lately, has it?"

At Hindman's formidable stone City Hall, the lobby is empty, but longtime police Chief Paul Jarrell — sitting in his office across the hall from his wife, Janice Jarrell, the town's mayor for 15 years — is watching his office TV intently.

"This is a historical event," the police chief says. "You stop and think about it and think about the Bible itself: things in my opinion are being met — fulfillment of the prophesies —the economy, the declining worth of money. But Obama's a smart man. I think he'll make one of the best presidents we've ever had if he can get the economy in order, but the way it is, it makes one wonder if we'll ever recover."

As the time for Obama's inauguration approaches, Jarrell yells across the hall, where his wife's TV is off.

"Beck, if you want this, you'd better flip your set on."