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Published: Tuesday, 9/4/2012

President visits diner near UT, surprises crowd

Tab picked up for 3 auto workers

BY KATE GIAMMARISE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The President looks at The Blade featuring James Fayson, also known as 'James the Jeep Worker,' across from Mr. Obama. Dan Schlieman and Heather Finfrock look on. The President looks at The Blade featuring James Fayson, also known as 'James the Jeep Worker,' across from Mr. Obama. Dan Schlieman and Heather Finfrock look on.
THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo

At first glance, it might have seemed like business as usual Monday morning at Rick's City Diner on West Bancroft Street.

Breakfast smells -- sausages, eggs, and hash browns cooking on the griddle -- were in the air. Nearly all of the tables and counter stools were occupied at the popular diner near the University of Toledo campus.

Owner Rick Salem, a fixture at the restaurant he has run in Toledo locations since 1988, was seated at the counter greeting one of his regular customers -- as he does every day.

Inside, however, Mr. Salem was a nervous wreck. He knew something that most of his customers -- chatting, reading the paper, eating toast, waffles, or sipping coffee -- didn't know.

President Obama would be arriving soon to have breakfast with three local autoworkers before his speech Monday afternoon at Scott High School.

Just after 10:30 a.m., several men wearing dark suits came in through the restaurant's back door. One stepped forward and said he was from the Secret Service.

"There will be a special guest coming in about a half hour," he said, as several people turned around and applauded. Anyone could leave if they wished; those who stayed would have to be "wanded" as a security measure by the Secret Service.

"Don't pick up the phone and call your friends," he added, "because the restaurant is now closed."

The small diner buzzed with excitement as the Secret Service scanned patrons with a security wand, and a handler with a bomb-sniffing dog walked through.

"It's a once in a lifetime kind of thing," said patron Don Harbaugh, of the President's visit.

Mr. Harbaugh, a regular, generally eats at Rick's about three times a week and takes his 94-year-old mother there every Sunday after church. He is not a likely Obama voter, but he was still pleased to see the President supporting a local business.

"I'm probably more in the Romney camp," Mr. Harbaugh said. "But that doesn't make any difference when the President comes. It's still the President."

As Mr. Obama entered the diner just after 11 a.m., everyone clapped.

"How's it going, everyone?" he said, as reporters, photographers, and media staff flooded the restaurant and crowded around as Mr. Obama took a seat at a table in the back of the diner with local autoworkers Heather Finfrock, Dan Schlieman, and James Fayson.

The three workers spent about 25 minutes eating breakfast with Mr. Obama, who only ordered an iced tea.

Mr. Obama regaled the auto workers with tales about his first car, a Jeep. It was "bright and shiny," he told them, and the "seat was all comfortable."

Ms. Finfrock works as a safety trainer at General Motors, Mr. Schlieman is employed at the Wrangler paint facility, and Mr. Fayson at the Toledo Jeep Assembly complex.

It was the second time meeting the President for Mr. Fayson, who had previously appeared in a video for the President's re-election campaign highlighting the automotive industry bailout. The Toledo resident earned the nickname "James the Jeep worker" for his appearance in the video.

"We talked about jobs, bringing jobs back to America, health care, family structure," Mr. Fayson said. "Primarily, he's happy to see this region starting to prosper again and get better economically."

Mr. Schlieman said the entire experience was surreal. In addition to discussing the auto industry, Mr. Schlieman asked the President for any advice on child-rearing.

"He said to give them care, structure, and sleep," Mr. Schlieman said about Mr. Obama's response. Mr. Schlieman has two sons.

Ms. Finfrock said she is a long-time supporter of the President.

"He's done so much for all the people I work with, all the people I care about. He didn't have to sway me," she said.

Mr. Obama, who picked up the tab for his table, spent about 30 minutes greeting about 40 or so other people in the restaurant, both diners and staff.

"I love Toledo," he said, speaking to a Blade reporter who was present. "It was great talking to my outstanding UAW members, learning about all the progress in the city."

Jad Salem, 17, who was at Rick's with his sister Rasha and his father, Omar Salem, was still grinning widely when asked about the experience after the President had departed. He was impressed Mr. Obama took the time to speak to everyone there.

"He really seemed interested in our lives and what we were planning for the future," said the youth. "He wasn't just trying to make the rounds quickly."

Added Mr. Harbaugh, "This is America, right here. This little diner. It's a diverse group of people every day."

Contact Kate Giammarise at: kgiammarise@theblade.com or 419-724-6091 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.



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