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Collecting Messages For Obama, One Step At A Time

If you could tell the president anything, and someone would deliver your message directly to him, what would you say?

You might want to get your thoughts together. For the last year, Cambridge, Mass., resident BJ Hill has been traversing the country collecting messages for the next president of the United States.

Reporter Sean Hurley gave Hill a handheld recorder at the outset of his trip and, asked him to document his experience.

BJ Hill in Connecticut at the end of December 2008. (Photo by Dave Makar)
BJ Hill in Connecticut at the end of December 2008. (Photo by Dave Makar)

I read about BJ Hill back in 2006. He'd walked across Massachusetts collecting handwritten messages for the governor in a notebook. And then he brought the notebook back to Boston.

HILL: And later on I did get to meet with the new governor, Gov. Deval Patrick, and got 10 to 15 minutes to hand the books over.

On March 1, BJ set out to do the same thing on a much larger scale. He flew to San Francisco and began to walk east. It's kind of an old fashioned idea — even a little strange. Collecting messages for the president? Isn't that what the Internet's for? How would a book of scrawled notes help the President more than, say, the latest approval poll?

HILL: I think it would keep him grounded as to what the rest of us Americans really are thinking and doing and what we're going through.

BJ has travelled the world teaching English in China, Japan and Afghanistan. He manned the phones for the Red Cross after 9/11. He likes to try new things. But he had a lot of trouble with the handheld recorder I sent him.

HILL: Alright, I'm BJ Hill, it's May 16, 2008...

But it wasn't long before he was sending back good recordings. As he traversed the country, he began to ask people to read their messages into his recorder.

KATE SHOCK: Number one priority in my opinion is stop the occupation in Iraq. And instead of killing people, talk to them and feed them. And talk peace instead of war. Love and hope to you, Kate Shock, Rock Springs, Wyoming.

RHONDA MORSON: We need better health care and I can't say enough about the gas prices.

BILL KOBEL: They gotta do something about these oil prices, cause for some people it's eat or you need heat.

HILL: Today is August 21, and I'm sitting in Ana, Ill., with Fran Jaffee. And Fran can you read your message to the president?

JAFFEE: Dear Mr. Obama. I am hopeful for the future, however this nation needs a representative who can put power and ego behind and truly try to do what is best for the people.

Did you notice that Fran addressed her message "Dear Mr. Obama" back in August?

HILL: Even when Hillary Clinton was still in the race, I found that a lot more messages were addressed to Barack Obama than anyone else. So it really wasn't a surprise to me when Barack Obama actually won.

BJ's been on the road now for 11 months. He's walked more the 4,000 miles. He's gone through eight pairs of shoes. He's pitched his tent behind churches, in open fields. In the woods.

HILL: I've been to a rodeo in Nebraska. I've been to the library in Salt Lake City. I've been to Senior Citizen Centers in Nevada. Powwows, again in Nebraska. Anywhere where I was going to be, where there was going to be a group of people, I'd try to get in there and introduce myself.

This week, BJ finally comes home. But not for long. On January 20, he'll enter the U.S. Capitol for the inauguration of President Obama. He's got a ticket. And he'll bring his three well-travelled leather-bound books with him to Washington.

HILL: You know, I started this project and it's not gonna finish until I see it through, until they're actually in his possession. Then I'll know that my walk is done.

I've gotten to know BJ pretty well over the last year. I don't think he'll give up until the books are in the presidents' hands. He's nothing if not persistent.

And if I might just put down my own note here: Dear President Obama, please see BJ Hill about an important matter involving the people of the United States.

This program aired on January 16, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrew Phelps Reporter
Andrew Phelps was formerly a producer and reporter for WBUR.

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