Former President George W. Bush attended a private fundraising event for the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce Saturday evening, marking the first time a president visited McMinn County since Ronald Reagan spoke from the county courthouse steps in 1985.
The 13th annual benefit dinner brought more than 2,000 people to McMinn County High School from 16 states and China. Media members were not permitted to enter due to a longstanding policy of Bush's since leaving the White House.
"He doesn't do a lot of these, so it's very unique," chamber president and CEO Rob Preston said. "You just don't get to hear a president very often."
Bush arrived at the property shortly before 5:30 p.m. in a black SUV, waving from the back seat followed by a state highway patrol vehicle. The crowd, which began arriving before 4 p.m. for the 7 p.m. event, lined the school parking lot in two directions waiting to hear Bush speak.
At the front of the line was 9-year-old Reed Elliotte from Corbin, Kentucky, who is the self-proclaimed biggest fan of presidents.
Elliotte wore patriotic red, white and blue dress clothes and excitedly waited near the doors of the area high school.
"He's my favorite president, and I've been wanting to see a president in person," Elliotte said.
For others, it was also a big day in local history.
Michelle Searcy graduated from McMinn County High School in 1989 but now lives in Arlington, Virginia. She made a trip back to visit her mother, who still lives in town, and see Bush.
"I thought it would be cool to see a president speak in the same halls I once walked," she said.
Preston, the chamber president, has been trying to get Bush to speak at the event for several years, but it may have taken an unfortunate event to finally book the former president.
The chamber offices were damaged in 2017. A large fire engulfed the Logan-Thompson law firm next door to the chamber office and damaged some of the businesses in the downtown area. The chamber moved its offices to the county courthouse across the street and spent 20 months rebuilding. Chamber personnel returned to their original offices in March.
"His assistant has been here and she said he loves smaller communities like this," Preston said. "I think that was the appeal. When I reached out to him last year, we had the fire and this particular [benefit] is going to support the rebuild of our office, so I think that appealed to him a little bit because we had a tragedy and are trying to rebuild."
The dinner typically brings athletes or other celebrities. Past speakers have included Bo Jackson, Tim Tebow, Herschel Walker, Kirk Cameron, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Pete Rose, Bruce Pearl, the 1998 NCAA National Champion Tennessee Volunteers football trio of former coach Phil Fulmer and players Al Wilson and Peerless Price and, most popular so far, Peyton Manning. Other notable speakers included "The Incredible Hulk" actor Lou Ferrigno and Christian singer Amy Grant.
Bush has visited the Chattanooga area before. He arrived on Air Force One in February 2007 and went to Erlanger Medical Center to speak about health care reform.
Bush was a popular candidate in Tennessee, having won the state in both the 2000 and 2004 elections.
"Any time you can have a former president here in town, it's a great event," Tennessee Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said. "Especially a president like President Bush coming to conservative East Tennessee. People are turning out to see him."