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What Happens When the President Puts You in His SOTU Speech?

They each received an unexpected phone call from the White House. With only a few days’ notice, they were ferried to Washington (sometimes secretly), were whisked through the Capitol alongside the presidential motorcade and, finally, were seated in a balcony alongside dignitaries, CEOs and the first lady of the United States.

Then, they each had their moment: Whether car mechanics, police officers or school teachers, widows mourning fallen soldiers, or math and music wunderkinds, most of these Americans were unknown until the commander in chief introduced them to tens of millions of television viewers during the State of the Union address—as inspiring real-life representations of presidential priorities or, depending whom you ask, politicized human props in one of Washington’s annual pageants.

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It’s a tradition that goes back to Ronald Reagan, who, during his 1982 address, honored the “spirit of American heroism” in Lenny Skutnik, a Congressional Budget Office employee who had jumped into the icy waters of the Potomac to help rescue passengers in a plane crash. In the quarter-century since then, nearly 100 guests—sometimes called “Skutniks”—have been publicly honored during the State of the Union. Not all are named in the speech, but some are mentioned in what end up being the most emotional and memorable moments of the night—like Carryn Owens, whose husband was killed in a raid in Yemen before President Donald Trump invited her to his address last year, or the more than two dozen citizens affected by gun violence for whom President Barack Obama declared in 2013, “They deserve a vote.”

But what happens after the speech ends, after members of Congress and the Supreme Court file out of the House chamber, after the pundits say their piece and the balcony guests go back to their daily lives? Beyond those 15 minutes of political fame, the experiences that follow the monumental recognition of being a State of the Union presidential guest vary widely.

Some have briefly carried their stardom forward, using the momentum of the public appearance to secure policy changes and local acclaim. Others simply returned to obscurity, quietly resuming their lives. Most returned to the work they were doing, while holding on to a little of the magic from a night many simply describe as “surreal.”

There are those who have been savvy enough to capitalize on their time in the spotlight. In 2011, Obama honored Robert and Gary Allen, owners of a small Rochester Hill, Michigan, roofing company as examples of the “promise of renewable energy.” With a $ 500,000 grant from Obama’s stimulus package, the Allen brothers had developed a roof shingle equipped with solar panels.

“I’m just a roofer,’” Gary Allen recalls thinking when the president mentioned them during the speech. But the brothers soon channeled the presidential recognition into a marketing opportunity. After the speech, Allen says, “We had customers calling like crazy.” The front page of their company’s website still features a link to the address. “Watch the replay here,” reads the banner, which includes an image of the White House seal.

Others sought to continue the work for which they were recognized in the first place. Richard Cavoli, then a 21-year-old college student, earned an invitation to the 1986 State of the Union for an experiment he designed for the Challenger space shuttle, seeking to grow crystals under zero-gravity conditions. But as he waited in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to meet Reagan, Cavoli watched on live television as the space shuttle exploded.

“Everyone was a bit numb,” Cavoli remembers.

The president postponed the speech for a week out of respect for the disaster. “We know that the experiment that you began in high school was launched and lost last week, yet your dream lives,” Reagan told Cavoli in his speech.

Cavoli continued his research and managed to get his experiment onto a subsequent mission, the Discovery shuttle. He says a few people here and there have tried to talk to him about running for local or state office after having seen him get recognized by Reagan, but he was clearly bound for medical school. Today, Cavoli is a radiologist in Albany, New York.

Other young honorees abandoned the passions they were recognized for and found entirely new ones. President Bill Clinton invited Chris Getsla to the 1997 State of the Union to represent the eighth-grade students of northern Illinois, who had collectively tied for first in science and second in math in a multicountry assessment.

“They prove that when we aim high and challenge our students, they will be the best in the world,” Clinton said.

At an after-party at the White House, Getsla says he bonded with Clinton over their shared love of music. At midnight, Getsla turned 15 years old, and Clinton himself led the room in singing “Happy Birthday.” Getsla doesn’t do much math these days; now, he produces a theatrical Beatles tribute show in Chicago.

Several State of the Union guests interviewed said the national attention, however brief, paid dividends for the causes they support.

Among the youngest honorees to attend a State of the Union, 13-year-old Trevor Ferrell caught Reagan’s attention for starting Trevor’s Campaign for the Homeless, a charity that provided blankets and food for the homeless in Philadelphia. Described by Reagan at the 1986 State of the Union as the “living spirit of brotherly love,” Ferrell received donations from Reagan’s inaugural fund and continued to receive regular letters from the president checking up on both the charity and Ferrell’s progress in school in the years that followed.

“We only met a few times in person, but I felt close to him,” recalls Ferrell, who currently works for UPS and runs a thrift shop in Philadelphia supporting the homeless. “He reminded me of my grandfather.”

Kristen Zarfos, a Connecticut breast cancer specialist, received a 1997 State of the Union invitation from Clinton for her fight against “drive-through mastectomies,” or insurance policies that forced women to vacate the hospital just hours after mastectomy surgery. She credits Clinton’s speech with providing the momentum to get state legislation passed, in Connecticut and across the country, allowing women to remain in the hospital for recovery longer after surgery.

Lucius Wright, a teacher in Jackson, Mississippi, was honored in 1996 for providing programs to steer inner-city youth away from gangs. He similarly credits Clinton’s recognition with expanding awareness about his efforts. Other cities reached out to him for advice about how to emulate the program, he says.

“Someone is always watching you,” Wright says. “If you try to do the right thing, the recognition will come.”

Blake Paterson is an intern at Politico Magazine.

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