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My neighbor, the president

Chris Hine | Monday, November 10, 2008

Sophomore Tom Kopko, a guard on Notre Dame’s basketball team, can still remember the day his mother came home from a campaign fundraiser for the guy down the block who was running for the Illinois State Senate.

Kopko, a native of Hyde Park, Ill., said that his mom, Mary Beth, came away unimpressed by the young politician.

“She came back and said, ‘There’s this young guy, a lot of people like him, but a lot of us didn’t think he spoke that well,'” Kopko said.

But Mary Beth’s opinion of her neighbor would soon change and so would life in Kopko’s neighborhood.

A few years later, in 2004, that guy down the block, Barack Obama, became a U.S. Senator and last Tuesday was elected president of the United States.

“I saw him around the neighborhood, just like any other neighbor, when he was an up and coming politician,” Kopko said. “No one ever gave any thought that he would ever be president. It’s really crazy.”

Kopko said he can remember Obama walking his dog down the street and playing pick up basketball at the University of Chicago, where Kopko liked to go and work out.

But Kopko never joined in on those basketball games.

“I don’t usually play pickup there because it’s more 30 or 40-year olds playing pickup and just having fun,” Kopko said. “But he’s played there and I remember seeing him in there playing. He’s got a really nice jump shot. He’s known to have a good jump shot and is a decent player.”

The night Obama won his U.S. Senate seat in 2004, garnering 70 percent of the vote, Kopko said the neighborhood became a frenzy with people trying to catch a glimpse of Obama, who was eating dinner at his house that night.

“The night he got elected, she said there was chaos in the neighborhood, all trying to get as close as they could but with all the security, they couldn’t get within a block,” Kopko said.

Kopko added: “When he won by such a landslide for Senate, they were saying he had such momentum and that he could possibly in four years be running for president, but nobody gave it too much serious thought,” Kopko said. “It’s politics and it could pass you by.”

Kopko said it was hard to believe Obama could actually become president, but he said it started to hit home for him after Obama won his first primary in Iowa.

As Obama’s prospects of becoming president increased, so did the security in Kopko’s neighborhood.

“When he was starting to get momentum against Hillary Clinton, you couldn’t get near his house without roadblocks,” Kopko said. “There are roadblocks all over the place now. It’s ridiculous. You can’t walk through his street without an ID claiming that you’re a resident on that block. You can’t drive through …

“When he first started running in the primaries, Secret Service told us, ‘Don’t be shocked. There will be people on the corners standing or Chevy Suburbans sitting, parked somewhere with guys in it.'”

The level security differs with who is home at the time, Kopko said.

“You could always tell when he was there because when his kids were there, there’d be just one Suburban out, one guy outside, just kind of pacing, walking around. If his wife was there, there’d be three or four Suburbans on either end of the block, but when he was there, city cops got involved, Secret Service was very influential,” Kopko said.

The security can be a hassle at times, Kopko said, but he doesn’t mind it too much.

“It’s a burden,” Kopko said. “But at the same time, it’s kind of cool because you could say, ‘The president is a neighbor of yours.'”