JOPLIN, Mo. —
Russell England, who cast his first presidential vote for Franklin Roosevelt, listened intently Monday night as President Barack Obama addressed the 2012 graduating class of Joplin High School.
For England, who never thought he would live to see a black man become president, hearing one speak in his hometown was a dream fulfilled.
“I nearly fell out of my chair when I got a call from the governor’s office,” he said, sitting in the VIP section of the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center at Missouri Southern State University, waiting for Obama. “They told me I would have a ticket.”
“My uncle has seen many things in his life, but today he got to see the president. I don’t think I have ever seen him happier,” said Kim Weathers, of Joplin, who accompanied her great-uncle to the ceremony.
Weathers said England was so excited Monday that he talked of little else but the graduation.
England, 90, was born when the Ku Klux Klan was at its most powerful in the United States, and he lived through the Jim Crow era. He grew up in Joplin in an era when a large KKK sign lit up the roof of the Connor Hotel during Klan gatherings.
England remembers the racism he experienced growing up in Joplin. He said he would have to go in through the back door of a store. Blacks in town could go to only one movie theater, and once there they had to watch the movie from the balcony.
“They had signs up: ‘Colored Here,’ ‘White Here,’” England said recently in a profile that appeared in the Globe. “Now, you can go anywhere you want to.”
After graduating from Lincoln School — Joplin’s segregated black school — just before World War II, England moved to Tulsa, Okla., and eventually joined the Army. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor, after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack, and in Okinawa, Japan, for more than three years.
He returned to the United States after his service and went to work at R&S Chevrolet in Joplin for $1 an hour. He attended Pittsburg (Kan.) State University for two years, studying refrigeration and auto mechanics on the GI Bill.
From 1948 to 1952, England was the president of the Joplin chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which pushed for improvements to Ewert Park in Joplin and other changes for blacks.
England said his wish to see a black man elected president was fulfilled in 2008, but he wanted to hear him speak.
He has gotten close to Obama a couple of times before.
He had a ticket to see Obama during a campaign stop in Springfield before he became president, but he was unable to see him because he couldn’t walk to the viewing area.
Last May, when Obama visited Joplin after the tornado disaster, England saw the president’s motorcade pass through town. It went right by the Frisco Building where he lives.
When it was announced that Obama was returning to Joplin for the graduation, he got another chance.
Several weeks ago, Bruce Baird, a former Joplin resident and longtime family friend of England’s who now lives in Alameda, Calif., put ads on Craigslist seeking graduation tickets so that England could hear the president in person.
After a story appeared in the Globe, Joplin Superintendent C.J. Huff and Gov. Jay Nixon arranged for England to attend the speech.
GLOBE EDITOR CAROL STARK and staff writer Kelsey Ryan contributed to this report.
RUSSELL ENGLAND, a resident of the Frisco Station Apartments in downtown Joplin, is known as the “mayor” of the building where he worked shining shoes as a youngster.