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Obscurity to Oprah, in one wild week
Mr. Man's incredible, improbable week began on a Monday, 24 hours before his left shoulder would ascend into fame.
At that point, before he was dubbed "Mr. Man" by Oprah Winfrey in front of millions of TV viewers, he was (and still is) Sam Perry from Menlo Park, Calif., a venture capitalist and early supporter of Barack Obama's campaign for president.
As a campaign volunteer, Perry traveled the country and had booked a flight to Chicago on Election Day. But until that Monday, he was undecided about whether he would attend the Grant Park rally. He finally decided yes.
Perry told the Tribune the details of his unexpected ride to fame.
As the polls closed at 7 p.m., Perry and a friend arrived at Grant Park. Because Perry worked for the campaign, an usher took the two to a VIP area 50 feet from the stage.
Perry basked in the warm Chicago evening with like-minded friends—some old, some new. They watched the returns on giant television screens broadcasting CNN. As the polls closed across the country, the math was adding up in their favor. The crowd and the noise grew. The feeling of promise turned into a sense of inevitability.
Then 10 p.m. arrived, and Wolf Blitzer declared Obama the president-elect. Is there a stronger description than thunderous roar? People waved American flags. Perry watched a black man from Houston wearing a "Baptists for Barack" button break into tears. Perry consoled him.
Suddenly, photographers swarmed in front of Perry. Rev. Jesse Jackson had moved into his area. That indelible image of Jackson weeping—steps from Perry—was broadcast around the world.
In between the euphoria came more commotion. There were whispers of "Oprah." Then there she was, right behind Perry and his accommodating shoulder; he offered the talk-show host a spot next to him in the front row. "No, I'm fine right here," she told him.
Just as John McCain was about to deliver his concession speech, the VIP area turned into a sardine can.
"Do you mind if I lean on your shoulder?" Winfrey asked.
Perry readily agreed, telling Winfrey that he had been at an Obama fundraiser at Winfrey's Montecito, Calif., estate earlier in the year. "The least I can do is return the favor," he said he told her.
And so, famous chin met humble shoulder.
Freeze that frame and extrapolate some metaphor from it: a woman as famous as Winfrey and a man as anonymous as Perry, together on a historic night.
Perry and Winfrey chitchatted about how gracious McCain was in defeat. Perry was not star-struck—in a previous life, he was a journalist for Reuters and had covered the 1988 presidential election. Besides, Winfrey's crying on Perry's shoulder was the second-biggest news story that night (with a big gap between first and second place).
And then, Winfrey was gone. Security escorted her entourage out of the area. Perry flew home to California early Wednesday morning and didn't think much about the incident.
It wasn't until Thursday that the text messages and voice mails came pouring in. Several newspapers and TV shows were asking: "Who is this man Oprah cried on?"
Everyone was looking for him.
By Thursday night, Winfrey's producers had found Perry and he was on a flight back to Chicago.
On Friday morning, he appeared on her show. They reunited and hugged. After the taping, a traffic cop on Michigan Avenue recognized Perry and yelled out "Mr. Man!"
Perry was back in Menlo Park on Saturday afternoon with his wife and son, back to being regular guy Sam Perry, and trying to wrap his head around the remarkable week—a week that may have represented some greater idealism and truth about people of all stripes coming together, improbable as that may sound, as incredible as it was.