The Day the President visited Buffalo
In our inaugural feature, we uncover hilarious behind-the-scenes stories
you never knew from Barack Obama's 2010 stop in Western New York
The night before President Barack Obama was scheduled to visit his South Buffalo factory on May 13, 2010, Dave Sullivan had a nightmare that still haunts him eight years later.
“I dreamed the President was walking up the stairs and I tripped and fell on him,” Sullivan recalled, shaking his head. “Fat business owner crushes President to death. I could see the headlines. Another president dies in Buffalo.”
Sullivan, originally from Burnt Hills, N.Y., south of Saratoga Springs, moved to Buffalo in 1990 to work for Goodwill. An outgoing entrepreneur, he soon formed Industrial Support Inc., off William Street. A manufacturing and packaging plant, ISI performs a wide variety of jobs, from building salad bars for restaurants and grocery stores to packaging sand and rocks for science experiment kits.
Sullivan had been under a whirlwind of pressure since learning six days earlier that the President planned to tour his company. Only sixteen months into his presidency, Obama had announced a trip to Buffalo, where he planned to deliver a speech touting the nation’s economic recovery in the heart of the Northeast.
Early in May, within days turning 53, Sullivan had heard rumors the President was coming to Western New York. Despite the economic struggles of the Great Recession, ISI, founded in 1995, had managed to turn a profit through those lean years. Still, Sullivan believed politics would influence an itinerary.
“When I heard Obama was coming, I figured he would go to the medical campus or Tonawanda Engine Plant,” he said. “The government had just bailed out General Motors. He’s got to go there.”
Sullivan didn’t know there were other factors in play. Frank Sorrentino, head of Buffalo’s Small Business Administration, had recommended ISI as a potential site for the President’s visit.
On May 6, Sullivan had been paged from a meeting to receive an important phone call. Ducking into his office, he spoke with a woman who claimed to be calling from the White House.
“Your company has been put up as a possible location,” she said.
“What does that mean?” Sullivan wondered.
“If we choose you, you’d be the base of operations for the president,” she explained. “He’ll come in, take a fifteen minute tour, then make a short speech and answer questions. Our lead person, Carrie Devine, is traveling to Buffalo this afternoon. I’ll have her call you.”
Sullivan hung up, certain that one of his friends had just pranked him. But a few hours later, Devine phoned to set up appointment for the following morning at 10 a.m.. Maybe, Sullivan thought, this was real.
That night, he and his wife, Donna, celebrated her birthday. The next day Sullivan planned to be to work before 10 a.m., but there was no rush. Before Sullivan arrived, however, Devine showed up early.
It was left to Tony Sabuda, ISI’s Vice President of Sales, to provide a tour for the White House representative. Sabuda did not understand that he was dealing with someone from the president’s office.
“Dave failed to mention that he had gotten this call the day before,” Sabuda recalled. “He claims he did, but I don’t remember that. When Carrie Devine said she’s from the White House, I was thinking of the restaurant in Williamsville, the Little White House. Then she handed me a card that read 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. At that point, we manufactured food bars. So I thought she wanted a custom-made breakfast bar for the place Obama was going to visit. I wasn’t connecting everything.”
“When Carrie Devine said she’s from the White House, I was thinking of the restaurant in Williamsville, the Little White House. Then she handed me a card that read 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” — Tony Sabuda
It took a few minutes for Sabuda to understand. ISI had received a TARP loan from the government, providing increased cash flow. The company also added an additional shift to wrap Humvee fuel tanks in a protective kevlar shield, a process that could potentially save lives of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. These realities might influence the White House’s search.
“Once I realized what was happening, wheels started turning in my head,” Sabuda said. “My job is to persuade people to do things. I’m thinking, I need to persuade her to get the president to come here. I have to hit a home run.”
Sabuda gave Devine a detailed tour of the plant, showing her metal fabricating, electronic assemblies, and the wood shop. Across the expansive concrete floor, he even recommended the spot where a podium would look good for the president’s speech.
“We could move a few presses so they’re in the background,” Sabuda suggested, miming TV cameras with cupped hands. “We’ll hang a big American flag from the ceiling there and put rows of chairs right where we’re standing.”
As he made his pitch, Sabuda noticed Devine’s eyes light up. An indoor loading dock seemed to sweeten the deal — the presidential limousine could pull safely inside while the garage door closed behind him. That would soothe the Secret Service.
“She said our place would be perfect,” Sabuda said. “I was pretty sure I had her.”
Once Sullivan arrived and joined them, Devine admitted that she needed to scout other locations. She would call them by 3:30 that afternoon. Sullivan and Sabuda cancelled a round of golf with a client, but 3:30 came and went with no word. By 4 p.m., both men felt excitement from the morning draining away.
By 4:30, Devine returned with three interns. While Sabuda began gathering chairs for everyone to sit in Sullivan’s office, Devine interrupted.
“Dave, before we go any further, I just want to let you know, you’re the one.”
“That’s great,” Sullivan smiled. “To clarify, what do you mean, I’m the one?”
“Dave,” she said, gazing levelly across the desk. “Next Thursday, the President of the United States is coming to Buffalo to see you. I hope you don’t mind, but we’re going to be in your hair for about a week.”
“It was perfect,” Sullivan recalled. “I was speechless.”
“Shock and disbelief,” Sabuda added.
That happened late Friday afternoon. Saturday morning, Sullivan gathered his employees around the conference table to map out a plan. They had five days to prepare. The team went into overdrive, scrubbing, painting, moving bleachers, striping the parking lot, hanging a new sign.
“It was a head-spinning week,” Sabuda said.
“We worked all day Saturday and Sunday,” Sullivan recalled. “From then until he came, I must have put in ten or twelve hours each day. The whole time, we’re running parts too. We have to ship product or we don’t get paid. With all the running around, I wasn’t eating a lot. I lost twenty pounds. I called it the presidential diet. What a great way to lose weight.”
The Secret Service set up metal detectors and inspected the building, while an advance team from the White House ran secured cable lines through an office window so the President could instantly communicate anywhere around the world.
Once he shook off his disconcerting dream of tumbling onto the president, when May 13 dawned, Sullivan and his employees brimmed with excitement. Before arriving at ISI, Obama met family members from the fatal Continental Flight 2407, which had crashed in February 2009, then stopped at Duff’s on Dick Road in Depew, ordering wings and fries to go. Here, patron Luann Haley famously told Obama, “You’re a hottie with a smoking little body,” then posed for a photo, mugging, “Hi Michelle. Eat your heart out!”
East side residents lined William Street, hoping to catch a glimpse of Obama as his limousine approached the factory. Once the car pulled into the ISI loading dock, Obama stood with a hand extended toward Sullivan. The president had read a profile about him during the ride.
“You must be Dave Sullivan, former linebacker at the University at Albany,” he said with a smile.
“Yes sir,” Sullivan replied. Undaunted by the most powerful man in the world, he said, “I was slow and weak, but if I caught you, I’d hit you.”
That was their first laugh of the day. During the next two-and-a-half hours, the laughs kept coming.
After the President privately with local politicians, Sullivan, Sabuda, and two other ISI executives, Max Branham and Patrica Penna, led Obama on a tour of the factory. Media from across the world — ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, even the BBC — followed the five.
“Once the tour got going, I wasn’t nervous at all,” Sullivan said. “All my employees were at their machines when he walked around. He spoke Spanish to Miguel Rivera, one of the first workers I hired twenty years ago. We actually kept a couple machines running because I couldn’t shut down completely.”
The President was shown a hovercraft, a round disk the size of a plastic sledding saucer. Using compressed air, the hovercraft levitated off the ground. Built by ISI, it was part of a high-end science kit. With a gleam in his eye, Obama singled out a New York Times reporter, Sheryl Stolberg, and insisted she ride it.
“He called it a levitator,” Sullivan said. “He loved taking that reporter out from behind the cameras. While she’s sitting on it, he leans over to me and says, ‘That’s the last time she’s going to write anything negative about my Supreme Court nominee.’”
A two-minute video of the exchange is below. Sabuda is dressed in blue; Sullivan is the bearded man wearing a black shirt.
Jackass of the Day
Following the hovercraft, Obama noticed an unfamiliar apparatus sitting on a table. Three feet wide, it was assembled from PVC pipe with three cups, an attached tube, and a handle before each.
“What is this for?” he asked.
It was part of a physics experiment, the President was told. It was a launch pad for empty plastic pop bottles.
“He was like a little kid,” Sabuda recalled, as he and Sullivan explained its purpose.
“You put three Aquafina bottles on a manifold. One is empty, one is half full with water, and the other is completely full,” Sabuda said. “They’re pressurized and you see which one will fly farthest. But the Secret Service didn’t want us to demonstrate it because we’d be shooting off rockets. It would make a big popping sound. We told all this to the President.”
Sullivan remembers Obama’s sly grin. This looked like another opportunity for hijinks.
“Oh, we’re doing that,” the President said, laughing.
After bottles were fitted onto the device, they were aimed straight up. (“My dumbass sales manager pointed it at the ceiling,” Sullivan groaned.) Weeks earlier, coke bottles had been launched in the parking lot. But inside the warehouse, a sprinkler system ran overhead. Sullivan envisioned a collision that might set off a shower, drenching everyone.
“Hold it, hold it!” Sullivan yelled, waving his arms.
Obama mimicked his actions. “Hold it, hold it,” he echoed.
The trajectory was adjusted so bottles pointed toward a high metal wall on the building’s far side. Reporters directly in the flight path were asked to move aside. While people milled about, Sullivan warned their demonstration could be dangerous.
“Everybody’s got to get out of the way,” Sullivan instructed.
“Except for the reporter from Fox News,” Sabuda added. He pointed at the empty space. “You stand right there.”
Everyone laughed. Obama offered a high-five and a half-hug.
The silly exchange might have been forgotten, except someone took video. The clip became a national issue that night.
“After dark, I got a call from one of my friends saying I was on Bill O’Reilly,” Sabuda said. “I’m a liberal Democrat and I wear it on my sleeve. O’Reilly played the clip, and labelled me the jackass of the day. People were asking, who’s that idiot wearing the blue shirt? And then I started getting hate emails from Fox News fans. They’d say your company is going down, you’re a big failure. I responded that I was just being fair and balanced.
“Being called a jackass by Bill O’Reilly….” Sabuda paused, then continued proudly. “Other than the birth of my children, this was the high point of my life.”
Forty minutes later, when the tour ended, Obama ducked into the conference room to eat chicken wings.
“I have to get something in my stomach, and those smell great,” Obama told Sullivan. “But I need a little privacy because nobody looks good eating a chicken wing. Dave, when I’m done, if I have sauce on my face, let me know. We don’t want that on camera.”
In the days leading up to Obama’s visit, Sullivan and Sabuda had imagined how cool it would be to share a beer with him. Sabuda, ever the salesman, believed this was his opening.
“Mr. President, here in Buffalo, beer and wings go together,” he said.
Sullivan picked up the cue. “Do you want a beer? We’d love to have a beer with you. I have a refrigerator full of cold beer.”
Obama, however, protested. He was working. How would it appear to the world if he drank beer at lunch?
Undaunted, Sullivan responded like a true Buffalo resident.
“I’ll put some beers in a plastic bag with ice and you can take them home with you.”
Years later, Sabuda is still amazed at that surreal moment. “Here’s Sully offering the President beer in a bag. I’m thinking, he’s going back to Air Force One. He doesn’t need your roadies!”
Sullivan, however, believes Sabuda’s behavior that day was even more bizarre.
“Later, after everyone left, Tony grabbed Obama’s wing bones from the garbage and took them home,” Sullivan laughed. “He said ‘I’ve got a souvenir from the President!’ They’re bones from chicken wings! I love Tony, but something is wrong with him."
“I thought maybe I could do something with his genetics,” Sabuda deadpanned. “Not only did I bring home ten empty wing bones, extra crispy medium, I got the receipt from when he paid at Duff’s. The chicken bones ended up in the garbage, but I saved the receipt.”
“Buffalo, I did not run for president to preside over America’s decline,” Obama told the gathered audience during his speech at ISI. “I didn’t run for president to watch the erosion of the middle class continue. I ran for president to keep the American Dream alive in our time.”
Between employees, media, guests and family members, more than 200 people gathered to watch the president that day. Sullivan positioned himself in the second row, insisting that his family be up front. So he sat behind his parents, Bob and Rosemary, his sister, Eileen Pezzi and her husband, John, with their son and daughter. Sullivan’s own sons, Mike and John, were in front as well.
Buffalo Tales’ Steve Desmond, a longtime friend of Sullivan, had been invited to serve as ISI’s official photographer. Media cameramen were there, as was a photographer from the White House.
“When we talked a couple days before, Sully was nervous,” Desmond remembered. “I expected to see him wearing a suit and tie and be clean-shaven, but here was my friend hanging out with the president dressed just like he does every day. He didn’t seem nervous at all, and Obama was cool and casual. He just related to people.”
The visit had come together perfectly with only six days advanced notice. Sullivan beamed.
“How many people can actually say the president came to where they work?” Sullivan reflected years later. “I mean, stuff like that just doesn’t happen. We had to shut down for a few days, so I probably lost $100 grand, but I’d do it again in a second. I had 45 minutes of literal face time with the President of the United States.”
The moment that made it all worthwhile, however, was noticed by only a select few. More than nine minutes into his speech, Obama complimented Sullivan’s hard work, noting he built his business from scratch.
“America’s small business owners, people like Dave Sullivan, have always been the backbone of America’s economy,” the president said.
Sullivan’s older son, Mike, then 22, had recently graduated from SUNY’s College at Brockport and planned to attend law school that fall. Mike pivoted to face his father, nodding wordlessly. As their eyes met, he gave a thumbs up sign.
“That was the coolest thing,” Sullivan recalled. “That’s the moment I won’t ever forget."
© 2018 by Jeff Schober
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