BRUNSWICK — When Rich Schwartz was called into the office of the human resources manager at Kestrel Aeroworks a couple of weeks ago, he didn’t know what to expect.
Certainly, it wasn’t what she told him.
“They wanted me to introduce the president of the United States,” Schwartz recalled. “My initial reaction, of course, was that it was a joke.”
Schwartz, a 48-year-old engineer from Woolwich, hadn’t campaigned for the honor.
He came to the attention of Goodwill Workforce Solutions, a job training program that received money from the federal Recovery Act, about a month ago during an information session the company held at Brunswick Landing.
During the session, Schwartz spoke up spontaneously to share his positive experience with the program: he had gone from being a down-on-his-luck, out-of-work boat builder to his current position as a successful IT administrator and engineer for Kestrel.
Schwartz credits an IT training program at Goodwill Workforce Solutions with his success re-entering the workforce.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about the people who went to bat for me at Goodwill. The people who took the time to train me. They were the ones who fought for the money to fund the program.”
A few weeks after sharing his story, Goodwill contacted Kestrel and said that they would like to consider Schwartz as a possible person to make the presidential introduction.
“My wife’s first words when I told her cannot be repeated,” Schwartz said. “But they were close to ‘you’re kidding me.'”
Schwartz’s name was submitted to the office of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. Then he got a call from Obama’s campaign staff, during which he was asked to talk about his experiences.
“No one in the campaign ever asked me if I was a Democrat or a Republican, or whether I voted for him or not,” Schwartz said. “They were very much nonpolitical.”
During the week leading up to Obama’s arrival at Southern Maine Community College, Schwartz worked on his speech. For two consecutive nights, he and his wife wrote a first draft, which he submitted to the president’s staff.
The campaign rewrote the speech, which began a round of negotiations between the Kestrel employee and the Obama campaign.
At first, Schwartz said, there were items in the rewrite that he was uncomfortable with.
“As an engineer, if I don’t have the data to support a statement, I generally don’t say it,” he said.
He said that the campaign was very easy to work with in coming up with a final draft. Generally speaking, Schwartz said that the campaign helped him to identify the connections between his own experiences and the policies that had impacted him.
“They didn’t put words in my mouth,” Schwartz said. “They helped to put me at ease. And since the words were my own, the speech was easier to deliver.”
Meanwhile, Schwartz and his wife, Karen, were preparing for his moment in the spotlight. He said she went on a shopping spree in a frantic effort to find clothing that would be suitable for meeting the most powerful man in the world.
“She got me a nice pair of shoes – patent leather shoes,” he said. “I walked across the kitchen floor and almost fell on my face. The leather bottoms were too slippery.”
The leather shoes didn’t make the cut, Schwartz said , although he did appreciate the shirt and tie that Karen picked.
On the day of the event, Schwartz first went to the college to do a sound check. He returned at 3 p.m. to await Obama’s late-afternoon arrival.
Before Schwartz went on, he and Karen got to spend a couple of minutes with the president backstage.
“He’s not as tall as I thought he was,” Schwartz said. “And he was extremely thin; he’s a very fit man.”
But Obama’s personal charisma is what made the biggest impression.
“He was unbelievably warm,” Schwartz said. “I felt just like I was with one of my coworkers. If he wasn’t the president, I could see myself having a beer with him.”
Schwartz said that the president made small talk and posed for a picture with him and Karen.
Finally, the big moment came, a moment Schwartz described as “surreal.”
“Me and Karen looked at each other,” he said, “and asked ‘is this really happening?'”
A moment later, Schwartz was in front of an audience of almost 2,000 cheering people, and enough television cameras to ensure that his two-minute speech would be broadcast the world over.
“I would say, I’m happy with how I did,” he said. “I hope I engaged the crowd, and they certainly engaged me.”
On Monday, Schwartz said that the hubbub surrounding his moment in the spotlight still hadn’t died down.
The phone rang constantly over the weekend, and his work email account was flooded, mostly with messages of congratulations from friends, family and coworkers. He has been interviewed by newspaper and radio reporters, and his name appeared in many news stories in connection with the president.
But Schwartz, who said that he and Karen have only a mild interest in politics, will be glad to get back to life as normal.
“It won’t really change me,” he said. “I’m still the same guy I’ve always been.”
Richard Schwartz of Woolwich works at Kestrel Aeroworks at Brunswick Landing. He also introduced President Obama at a campaign fundraiser on March 30 in South Portland.
Kestrel Aeroworks employee Richard Schwartz introduces President Obama to the crowd at Southern Maine Community College during a presidential fundraiser on Friday, March 30.