A slew of postcards, YouTube videos and mailed invitations drew President Obama to Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where he was to deliver the commencement speech at UC Irvine's 50th anniversary ceremony on Saturday.
The presence of the commander-in-chief attracted a mob of proud relatives and protesters, making for a mixture of elation and agitation among the nearly 15,000 people in and around Angel Stadium for the noontime speech.
“This is a once-in-a-life-time event; you don’t get to see the president every day," said Martin Kou, 27, whose brother Abrahim was among the graduates.
Obama is not scheduled to speak at any other graduation ceremonies this year, according to the White House, and his remarks signal the third time a UC ceremony has earned the attention of the chief executive's household.
President Lyndon B. Johnson attended the campus dedication in 1964 and, after a recruiting blitz that included Valentine's Day postcards, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at UC Merced's commencement in 2009.
UC Irvine spent roughly $2 million on the anniversary ceremony, and urged students to personally recruit the president with video invitations. In one, 7-foot-6 freshman basketball player Mamadou Ndiaye appealed to the president's affinity for hoops, staring directly into the camera while towering over a cardboard cutout of Obama.
"Mr. President, we should play ball together," Ndiaye said.
James McGaugh, an 82-year-old neurology professor at the university, said he was probably the only faculty member who can say he was and for Johnson's visit in 1964 and witnessed Obama's remarks Saturday.
He noted the change in times between the two presidential appearances. In 1964, marksmen dotted the roofs of half-constructed campus buildings. On Saturday, air traffic was restricted in a 13-mile radius surrounding the stadium.
Outside Angel Stadium, a few dozen protesters lined the streets to voice opposition to the administration's policies on deportation and drone strikes in the Middle East. One group was draped in all black with their faces covered chanting "No border. No nation. No more deportation."
“We’re against deportation, the prison industrial complex, drones perpetuating the police state and killing people in other countries, the illegal taking of Tongva ancestral lands, racism and many other things," said a spokesman for the group who identified himself only as Amaru.
Inside the stadium the mood was more jovial, with parents flocking to souvenir stands to buy $5 copies of graduation programs emblazoned with the president's picture.
“I could not be prouder,” said Donya Saber, whose daughter Sara was among the day's graduates.
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2:53 p.m.: This post was updated to clarify visits by White House residents to UC ceremonies. A previous version incorrectly said this marked the third such appearance at UC Irvine.