Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Meet President Obama's examples for a new America

A heartfelt hug for her heartfelt efforts: Ty'Sheoma Bethea of Dillon, S.C., gets a warm embrace from First Lady Michelle Obama.

He gives bankers a much-needed good name: Leonard Abess Jr., of Miami, attends President Barack Obama's address to a joint session of Congress on Tues. Feb. 24, 2009.

Meet President Obama's examples for a new America: Ty'Sheoma Bethea and banker Leonard Abess Jr.

Virtue is its own reward. But nabbing the spotlight in a major speech by a shinning young President must feel pretty nice, too.

That was the situation that two formerly unsung citizens found themselves in last night when President Barack Obama made them into examples for the new America he hopes to create.

In a speech meant not only to bolster America's hope for the future but to galvanize our better selves, Obama brought national attention to the generosity of former banker Leonard Abess Jr. and the never-give-up spirit of eighth-grader Ty'Sheoma Bethea.

His choices may pinpoint qualities the President thinks are keys as Americans work toward a brighter place in our nation's history.

Bethea, a student at J.V. Martin Junior High School in Dillon, S.C., took her plea for better conditions at her crumbling school to Congress in a moving letter that won the attention of both her Representative and the White House after it was forwarded by her principal.

Obama visited the school, built in the 1880s, and mentioned conditions there in his first news conference as President as an example of why the federal government should help with school construction.

He spoke of the leaky ceilings, peeling paint, and deafening noise from the nearby train tracks, and said Bethea had been told her school was "hopeless" before quoting her letter:

"We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters."

Bethea's willingness to do something to create a better learning environment for herself and her classmates earned her a seat next to Michelle Obama during Tuesday night's address, as well as a heartfelt hug from the First Lady.

Abess, the other individual whom the President singled out, is the one-man antidote to every bad image of the banking industry that's been cast into harsh relief by the economic crisis.

He sold a majority stake in Miami-based City National Bancshares last November and handed $60 million of the nearly $1 billion in proceeds to his tellers, bookkeepers, and clerks. Some received more than $100,000.

Abess also took the extra step of tracking down 72 former employees, whom he felt deserved a share as well.

President Obama said of Abess' selfless actions, "He didn't tell anyone, but when the local newspaper found out, he simply said, 'I knew some of these people since I was seven years old. I didn't feel right getting the money myself.' "

It's exactly the kind of fiscal responsibility the White House hopes the banking industry - and the nation as a whole - will adopt as their new mantra.

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