Fundraiser attendees thrilled by brush with president

Leslie Fark and Erin Wood

Phillip Farmer arrived at Weaver Angus Farms about four hours before President Bush was scheduled to be there. But he was on the last Peoria Charter Coach to pass through the gates of the ranch at 11 a.m.

Farmer was one of six college-aged volunteers assigned to direct traffic Friday morning in the parking lot of L.R. Nelson Corp., across the street from the farm. But he didn't mind his job because it was a free pass into the luncheon as well as a chance to meet Bush.

"I'm very much involved in politics," said the 20-year-old from Joliet, who was in Peoria on Friday for the sole purpose of attending the fundraiser for state Rep. Aaron Schock. "They said they needed some help, so I'm here."

The volunteers directed hundreds of cars around the company's large parking lot. It filled up quickly, and by 10:30 a.m., drivers were directed to park on the grass next to the pond, intruding on the lone swan's turf. The mostly middle-aged and older couples attending the fundraiser then were directed to the rear of the parking lot, where they signed in and received a table number before boarding one of three coach buses.

Lifelong Republicans Kent and Kristin Boyer of Peoria Heights said the $1,000 they had set aside to buy a new water heater would be best used to support Schock.

"It's an exciting opportunity for us. We don't get to do things like this," Kristin Boyer said.

Added Kent Boyer: "It's a chance of a lifetime. An experience I'll never forget."

Bush came to Peoria to bolster Schock's campaign. The Peoria Republican is running for the 18th Congressional District seat of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Once full of passengers, the buses left the parking lot onto Koerner Road and made the short jaunt to the farmhouse across the street. That was the last the public saw of the guests, but Karye Setterlund of Peoria said after the event that all the guests went through a tight security check.

"They checked everyone's purses, cameras and cell phones," said Setterlund, one of the luncheon's decorators and a friend of Schock's mother. "There were snipers everywhere."

Setterlund said security personnel turned on everyone's cell phones and cameras to make sure they weren't weapons. Photographs were allowed during the party, but video was prohibited, she said.

The guests ate in a large, white, air-conditioned, circus-like tent before the president arrived, and all the tables, covered in a variety of tropical-colored cloths and birds of paradise centerpieces, had to be cleared before Bush took the stage.

Sitting at a front-row table, Gary Setterlund of Germantown Hills had one of the best seats in the house for the president's speech. He said Bush has a natural ability to win over the crowd.

"He's a down-to-earth person," he said. "He doesn't try to put any distance between people and his position. Even though he's the president, he doesn't have that air about him."

Dave Whitehurst of Dunlap got to shake the president's hand.

"He was at ease," he said of Bush's demeanor. "The crowd was pretty excited."

Though the Weaver property was thick with police and Secret Service, Whitehurst said it didn't detract from the luncheon. "They were all around. There was a lot you didn't see."

The property was surrounded by a two-layer shield of vehicles. The outer layer, parked on War Memorial Drive in front of the Weaver property, consisted of a line of about 40 city of Peoria dump trucks, construction vehicles and an empty fuel tanker truck that acted as a barricade and mostly obstructed the public's view of the event. The inner layer was made up of about a dozen semis that were parked on the lawn around the tent, located behind one of the many houses on the compound.

About nine snipers surrounded the tent, and two were stationed on the roof of one of the semis.

In addition to the Secret Service sprinkled throughout the grounds, about 40 local officers were stationed around the perimeter of the house and along surrounding roads.

Security eased after the nearly three-hour event, and guests, armed with bags of Aunt Em's kettle corn and table centerpieces, scurried out the front gates to their vehicles.

Logan County Sheriff and fellow Republican Steve Nichols said he was in awe with the president's speech.

"He was pretty impressive," Nichols said. "He talked about world issues and how he saw them. Hearing him talk today makes me understand some of the things he does."

Because he is law enforcement, Nichols couldn't help but notice the extensive security plan that was put in place.

"The security and planning that went into that," said Nichols, gesturing toward the property, "that didn't happen overnight."

Leslie Fark can be reached at 686-3188 or Erin Wood can be reached at 686-3194 or