Mr. President, meet "Mr. President."
The nickname -- Kory Short, almost 12, from Tracy City, Tenn. -- met the real thing Thursday night in the White House thanks to a giving community.
Last week, Grundy Countians raised more than $5,000 in just 36 hours to send Kory and his family to Washington, D.C., where they met President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama and watched "Where the Wild Things Are" with them and about 20 other children in the White House theater.
"It was an unreal experience," Kory's dad, Kip, said by phone Friday morning before the family -- his wife, Penny; son Kye, 18; daughter Kayla, 14; and Kory -- left for an afternoon of sightseeing at the Smithsonian Institution. Escorted by a staff member from U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis' office, they'd already watched the swearing-in of a new congressman from California and seen a "Tea Party" demonstration.
Along the way, they counted off "firsts" -- first airplane flight, first train ride, introduction to Sen. Lamar Alexander and, of course, meeting the first family. "It's been wonderful," Mr. Short said.
President Obama invited Kory to visit on the strength of a letter written by the boy's friend Marissa Caldwell.
Marissa's mom, Donna Caldwell, is Kory's bus driver. She started calling Kory "Mr. President" when he was just a tyke, depressed about being in a wheelchair because he has Duchenne's muscular dystrophy.
Mrs. Caldwell told Kory never to give up on his dreams, that you can be in a wheelchair and be president, even. When Marissa brought back a photo of the President Franklin Delano Roosevelt statue in Washington, D.C., Kory decided he wanted to go the capital someday and meet the president.
So Marissa wrote to the White House, Mrs. Caldwell said. Some time later, Marissa called her.
"She said, 'Mom, you're not going to believe this. There's a message on my phone from a lady named Maude at the White House ... about the letter I wrote about Kory.'"
Mr. Short owns two small businesses, Rocky Top Granite and Marble and Kip's Custom Cabinets, but times are tough, especially with Kory's health needs.
So Mrs. Caldwell and Marissa started spreading the word about the invitation and people responded.
"It started in the school system ... and just spread through the whole county," said Gerald Sitz, vice president of Citizens Tri-County Bank, who helped arrange the family's airline travel.
Grundy County High School cheerleaders raised $700, Mrs. Caldwell said. Children who ride with Kory on the handicapped bus, and their driver, raised $100 so Kory would have spending money. And everyone worked to make sure Kye and Kayla got to go along, she said.
"The two older kids have sacrificed so much to meet Kory's needs, we tried hard to make sure they could go," she said.
Mr. Short said the family got to the White House around 6 p.m. Thursday and had popcorn and cookies in the theater. Then the Obamas came in. The president shook hands and spoke with everyone in the room, he said.
"What stuck in my mind is how charismatic he was. When he walked in, everyone was just in awe," Mr. Short said.
But he's also awed by the support and generosity of the friends and neighbors who helped make the trip possible.
"This wasn't just Tracy City, this was all the people of Grundy County," Mr. Short said.
"It was awesome. It's an experience that's just unbelievable."
Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...