President praises N.C. woman during speech

Praise spurs N.C. woman's 'That's me!'

Staff WriterJanuary 27, 2011 

There she sat, in her new black suit, in the first lady's box at the State of the Union address. So it shouldn't have been a surprise when President Barack Obama started talking about Kathy Proctor, the 55-year-old student retraining for a biotechnology career at Forsyth Technical Community College.

But when Proctor heard her name and all the network and cable TV cameras zoomed in, her amazement was fully evident to any half-decent lip reader. She turned to her seatmates on the left and right, smiled, and said, "That's me!"

It was a heartwarming moment seen by millions of viewers - and a proud achievement in what has been an extraordinary journey for Proctor.

"It was unreal," she said Wednesday in a phone interview from the airport in Washington, where she was stranded by weather delays.

The mother of two from Archdale met Obama in December at Forsyth Tech in Winston-Salem, where the president delivered a speech on the economy and declared this a "Sputnik moment" for America. He had toured Proctor's biology lab, shook her hand and asked the dozen or so students whether anyone had a story to tell.

The gregarious Proctor piped up.

She explained to the president that she had worked in furniture manufacturing since the age of 18 and fully expected to retire from the factory. But in 2009, she was laid off.

Always one to look on the bright side, Proctor decided to go back to college, where she had taken a few courses over the years. "I saw it as a door opening, not as a door closing."

She wanted to reinvent herself, not only to launch a new career but to set an example for her daughters, Amanda and Meghan. The twins, 18, will graduate from high school this year.

Obama retold Proctor's story in his address Tuesday night: "As Kathy said, 'I hope it tells them to never give up.'"

A week ago, as Proctor drove along Interstate 40 at lunchtime, her cell phone rang. It was the White House, with an invitation for her to sit with Michelle Obama during the president's speech. She was tickled.

"I don't think that really sunk in what an honor this was," she said.

Proctor said she was humbled to be in the company of the other guests, including the trauma surgeon that helped save victims of the Tucson, Ariz., gunman and the parents of Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old who died in that shooting.

Proctor took her daughters along on the trip, which included a White House reception before the speech, where they chatted with Michelle Obama.

They had a quick tour. "We got to go around the White House," she said. "We met the dog. They brought Bo down."

The highlight, she said, may have been the high-speed police escort from the White House to the Capitol before the speech. "They had the blue lights a-flashin' everywhere!" she said.

By Wednesday, the video of Proctor's "That's me" moment was racking up hits on YouTube and the Washington Post website.

"It's been a whirlwind, it's been exciting," she said. "I'm ready to get back to school and back to normal. I can't get behind in school."

Proctor, who has an interest in biofuels and renewable energy, is on track to graduate this summer with an associate's degree in science.

She'll be ready to start looking for a job; she already has her interview suit. or 919-829-4559

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