When Sara Ferguson, an elementary school teacher from Pennsylvania, and Alicia B. Davis, a General Motors plant manager from Michigan, join First Lady Michelle Obama in her viewing box during Tuesday's State of the Union Address, they will be taking part in 30 years of presidential history.
Every president since Ronald Reagan has looked up during his speech and into the rafters to give a shout-out to special invited guests. These guests have included everyday Americans, war heroes, schoolteachers, celebrities and small business owners.
"For nearly three decades, extraordinary Americans who exemplify the themes and ideals laid out in the State of the Union Address have been invited to join the First Lady in her viewing box," Kevin Lewis, a White House spokesman told The Huffington Post's Black Voices via e-mail Tuesday morning.
Tuesday night, as President Barack Obama uses his speech to lay out his plan for moving America forward and beyond these tough economic times, he will be joined by Ferguson and Davis, as well as Bryan Ritterby, a lab technician from Grand Rapids, Mich., and Debbie Bosanek, the secretary of multi-billionaire Warren Buffet, who famously proposed "The Buffet Rule," which calls for the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share of taxes. Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (R-Ariz.), is also among the president's invited guests.
Ferguson, who teaches literacy and math at Columbus Elementary in Parkside, Pa., is a third generation educator who vowed to continue teaching her students as the school district faced bankruptcy earlier this year when the state made drastic cuts to education.
"We are adults; we will make a way," she said, according to Lewis, the White House spokesman. "The students don't have any contingency plan. They need to be educated, so we intend to be on the job."
Davis, who was recently appointed plant manager at General Motors Orion Assembly and Pontiac Stamping, rose through the ranks of General Motors and was the company's first African American woman to be appointed a general manager when she headed its Arlington assembly plant.
Ferguson and Davis are the latest in a string of African Americans to be honored with a special invitation to the White House during the speech, perhaps more of an honor under the country's first black president. Last year's black guests included Ursula M. Burns, the CEO of Xerox Corporation, tapped by the president to help lead a White House campaign on science, technology, engineering and math; and Brandon Ford of Philadelphia, then a junior at West Philadelphia High School who lead a team of young engineers to the final rounds of a national automotive engineering contest which pitted them against corporations, universities and other well-funded organizations.
The tradition of inviting everyday Americans to hear the president address the nation during the State of the Union dates back to 1982 when President Reagan invited Lenny Skutnik, a Congressional Budget Office employee. Skutnik dove into the icy Potomac River to rescue passengers of a downed airplane.
The presidential guests have since been called "Skutniks."
In the early 1990s, President George H.W. Bush invited Alma Powell and Brenda Schwarzkoph, whose husbands, Gens. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkph, were heading up military operations in Iraq.
President Bill Clinton invited baseball great Hank Aaron and now-sullied home run legend Sammy Sosa, as well as Richard Dean, a Social Security Administration employee who searched through the rubble of the Oklahoma City bombing to rescue survivors.
Later, President George W. Bush also invited war heroes and their families and people who helped thwart terror attacks against the United States, including a pair of flight attendants who helped foil "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid.
Obama has used his invitations to also highlight American heroism, perseverance and ingenuity during these tough economic times. Last year's guests included Daniel Hernandez, Giffords' former congressional intern, who is credited with helping to save her life after a shooting in her district.
"The guests of the First Lady each have uniquely American stories to tell, and in many cases their stories highlight not only the challenges we've overcome," Lewis said, "but some of the ways in which we can move forward together as a nation and create an America built to last."
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