Essay winner looks forward to inauguration

Published: Friday, January 9, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 6:34 p.m.

Cyndi Russell says she isn't a strong writer.


Cyndi Russell

She's not an active Democrat, either, but rather a voter who pays little attention to party lines.

Yet her essay to President-elect Barack Obama won her a trip to see America's first black president take the oath of office in less than two weeks.

On Monday night, Russell received a phone call while reading in her Town of Tioga home, informing her that out of everyone across the nation who applied to be one of the 10 everyday people selected for the free trip, she had won.

"I was just shocked," Russell said. "I make my boyfriend and my best friend, I make them rewrite everything I write, but not this. I started writing, and I thought that sounds hokey and I decided, why don't you just say what you really mean? And gosh they picked it. I've never won an essay contest before."

Then the "whirlwind" began.

Russell flew out Tuesday night for New York, where she appeared on the "Today Show" Wednesday morning.

"I felt very comfortable once I sat down with Meredith," said Russell, adding that "Today Show" host Meredith Vieira was very down to earth.

She also had interviews with the Washington Post and several Florida newspapers, and called The Sun from her layover in Charlotte while returning home.

The tickets come in pairs and Russell said she will be taking her boyfriend, Chris Buffington, to the events.

Buffington was a Sen. John McCain supporter until the very end, when Russell said he jumped ship and voted for Obama.

"I just said, I'm comfortable with my choice and you need to be comfortable with yours," Russell said. "I guess he wasn't comfortable."

The compelling story that 50-year-old Russell wrote detailed the struggles of her three businesses in the Gainesville area.

As the owner of Emerald Ventures LLC, a home-building company near Meadowbrook Golf Club, Russell said her business is struggling.

And while she was able to sell off all her inventory before the bottom dropped out of the local housing market, Russell said she waited a year before building another house.

"I finally decided if I didn't build a home, I couldn't sell a home," Russell said. She now has one home on the market.

She also owns a company that specializes in marketing and decorating houses for sale, Studio One Home Staging, and an apartment complex, Magnolia Manor apartments, 3901 SW 27th Ave.

"The apartments are doing well, they're basically keeping me afloat," Russell said.

It was all tied together with "the hope" that Obama would bring relief to the nation during these hard times.

Russell, however, is not a party-line Democrat. She's voted for Republicans, and Obama's campaign was the first time she's ever donated money.

"For me, Obama, he impressed me with his quietness, he seemed focused, he seemed confident, and it seemed like he could lead by listening," Russell said.

The contest, "Your Ticket to History," was held in an effort to generate donations for the inauguration but also to give 10 everyday people in the United States the chance to see Obama sworn in.

Aside from the contest, the other way to get tickets for the inauguration in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20 is through U.S. senators and representatives.

Several local elected officials are attending the ceremony such as Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan, City Commissioners Thomas Hawkins and Jeanna Mastrodicasa and County Commissioners Cynthia Chestnut, Rodney Long and Paula DeLaney.

Russell will also get to attend a ball during her all expense-paid trip. However, she said it's only just dawned on her that she will have to find something to wear.

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