GREENWOOD, S.C. — It's not unusual to hear average folks being mentioned by presidential hopefuls on the hustings. But few have found themselves quite so celebrated as Edith Childs, the star of one of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's favorite campaign anecdotes.
Childs, a county councilwoman, is famous for her hats and cheerleader-style chants at political gatherings. She learned how to rally a crowd years ago when she was active with the NAACP.
Back in June, she unwittingly provided Obama his now-signature slogan: "Fired up! . . . Ready to go!" When Obama recounts the story, it becomes a lighthearted morality tale about how one voice can change a room (and by extension, the world).
The candidate and the councilwoman's paths crossed for the first time when Obama visited Childs' hometown of Greenwood, population 29,000, as a favor to a local politician whose endorsement he was pursuing.
Though most candidates have ignored Greenwood, Obama pledged to visit after meeting Anne Parks, an influential African American state representative, last spring in the state capital, Columbia. In a moment of exuberance ("maybe I'd had a glass of wine," Obama usually says), he asked Parks what it would take to get her endorsement. She didn't hesitate: "Come to Greenwood."
He did, and the visit did not start happily. He'd arrived in South Carolina past midnight, exhausted from weeks of campaigning, and was none too happy when his alarm rang at 6 a.m. After a 90-minute drive, he arrived in Greenwood, where he encountered a small crowd, as he tells the story, "and they're kind of miserable too," he says. "But that's OK. I got a job to do."
Suddenly, "a little woman, about 5-3, 65 years old, in a big church hat, with big glasses, she's smiling right at me. She says, 'Fired up!' I jumped, but everyone acted like this was normal. They all said, 'Fired up!' We hear the same voice saying, 'Ready to go!' And the people, they all say, 'Ready to go!' "
Soon, though, his confusion gave way to enthusiasm. "After about a minute or two, I'm feeling kind of fired up," Obama says. "I'm feeling like I'm ready to go."
On the stump, he concludes the story by inviting his audiences to chant along with him in a boisterous call and response.
Before long, Childs' slogan was appearing on signs and T-shirts worn by Obama supporters in faraway places like Iowa and New Hampshire.
"I just thought we needed to do something really different for him, 'cause it's not normal for candidates to come to Greenwood," Childs said during a interview in a restaurant on Main Street, downstairs from Obama headquarters. No other presidential candidates have offices here.
A surprisingly soft-spoken woman, Childs is an indefatigable local activist who founded an anonymous hotline in Greenwood County to help seniors who were being preyed on by criminals and feared retribution if they called police. After retiring as a licensed practical nurse, she studied criminal justice and became a private investigator.
Today, she runs Childs Detective Services with her husband, Charles. They've handled cases involving divorces, child custody, even murder. "At first it was real exciting," she said. "But it was nerve-racking because you didn't know who you would run into." One major plus for her undercover work: no one, she said, expects a matronly black lady in a fancy hat to be on a stakeout.
She loves starring in Obama's story, but pointed out that he got a few things wrong. She is not 65; she is 59. Nor were the people who'd come to see Obama at the Greenwood Civic Center miserable.
"Oh, they were happy to see him," said Greenwood Mayor Floyd Nicholson. "They were clapping and holding signs."
They also knew they were among a lucky few who'd been handpicked by Parks to attend, since, to stay on schedule, Obama's staff insisted the gathering be small.
About 45 minutes after he'd swept in on June 15, Obama was gone. Many of Childs' and Parks' friends and constituents were miffed that they hadn't been invited when, in the local paper the next day, they saw a huge photo of Obama in their little town. To assuage the backlash, Obama has promised to return before the state's Democratic primary Jan. 26.
No one in Greenwood knew that he'd turned his visit into a campaign fable starring Childs until about three months later. In September, a friend heard Obama tell the story on public radio while she was visiting her son in Vermont.
In October, Obama had a rally in Aiken, about 1 1/2 hours from Greenwood. Childs and Parks surprised him by showing up near the end of his speech. He called Childs onstage to lead her chant with him. (To watch on YouTube, type "Edith Childs Aiken" into the search field.)
On Sunday, during his rally in Columbia, S.C., with Oprah Winfrey, Obama singled her out to the enormous cheering crowd. "And then," as Childs recounted it this week, "Oprah actually did a bow to me!"
Over lunch last month, Childs recalled that when she was a little girl, her grandmother told her that one day she would be somebody.
"I said, 'Grandma, I am already somebody now!' And she said, 'No, I mean somebody uptown with them big folks, Edith.' I didn't have a clue what she was talking about, but I guess now I understand."