At 86, Hilton Joseph says his chest tightens up whenever he walks a long distance or exerts himself.
But his legs are still sturdy and strong, and when President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in Tuesday, Joseph said, he'll push himself to make it to the terrace, up near the podium, to watch.
"I'm proud of the fact that I'm able to even witness this occasion," said Joseph, one of about 200 original Tuskegee Airmen invited by Obama to attend the ceremony. "I'm at a loss of words really to describe how I feel. We have really accomplished a lot as a country. We've come a long way; that's what I can say."
Joseph will travel from Chicago to Richmond, Va., on Sunday, he said. His son will pick him up at the airport, and on the day of the inauguration, he'll take the train in.
"As long as I take it easy and move slowly, I can make it," he said. "I'm going to give myself an early start."
For Joseph, just seeing an African-American elected president is exhilarating. But Joseph said Obama's invitation especially touched him.
"I received so much encouragement from my family and friends. I was urged to go," he said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime event. I have to be there."
On the day Obama starts his new job, Sandra Barnett-White will start hers too.
The way she sees it, Obama needs help to bring about the change he has promised. So the Rogers Park resident has pledged to work in her own community and plans to show her commitment by being in Washington on Tuesday.
"I just want to be there for him—I know it sounds ridiculous because there will be 4 million people there," she said. "But he asked us to show up. He depends on the people of this country to make things work. I want to start with the first step, the inauguration, and say: 'I'm here, I'm ready to work.' "
On Tuesday, Barnett-White and her husband, Jim White, will walk down to the National Mall and, along with Obama, take up their new roles.
"Our presence makes a commitment to him to be a participating citizen," Barnett-White said. "We need to be there and say we are on board."
Keith Chambers says he doesn't remember when he started praying for Obama to win the presidential election.
But the South Holland resident certainly recalls Nov. 4 as the night he felt his prayers had been answered.
"Because I'm faith-based, I see the power and glory of what God can do," he said of Obama's victory. "Obama's on a destined course that is ordained. It's validation that divine order is still present in today's society."
So even before the election results were in, Chambers and his wife were making plans to attend the inauguration.
"The way he got there is a clear example of how it should be done," said Chambers, a Village of South Holland trustee who has other political ambitions. "He campaigned from a place of integrity, he had an inclusive campaign, he took the high road. That has always been my philosophy. He represents the core principles that each American should follow."
In many ways, Chambers said, the swearing-in will be like a spiritual service.
"I want to hold on to the moment as firmly as I possibly can," he said. "We'll all be together, all focused on the same thing."
At a Chinese New Year celebration for Chicago's Asian community five years ago, Obama spoke about all minorities being treated fairly. He spoke against racism toward blacks and toward Asians.
The words struck a nerve in Chicago businessman Balvinder Singh.
Singh, who emigrated from India in the 1970s, said that when he opened A-One Carpets on the North Side, he encountered racist attitudes from employees. Then one day, he returned from a trip to India to an empty warehouse. His employees had robbed him.
As Obama spoke, Singh also recalled the racial slurs leveled at Sikhs after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by people who thought they were Muslim.
Singh pledged his support to Obama, helping raise tens of thousands of dollars for the candidate's campaigns for the U.S. Senate and then the White House. He has held fundraisers on Devon Avenue and at his Glenview home, bringing together South Asians from all religious backgrounds—Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims.
Thanks to his political connections, Singh has four tickets to the inauguration and two to the Illinois ball. The latter cost him $500 apiece.
Singh says he hopes Obama's swearing-in will mark an end to racism in America.
"I hope he will bring this country together," Singh said. "I hope there will be no more racists, that people will not treat others as foreigners, black or Indians, but as Americans."
For much of her adult life, Mahely Somerville has been on the front lines at protests and demonstrations or almost any event where the fight is for civil rights or justice.
The times the 87-year-old grew up in called for a feisty, fiery spirit, she said.
Over the years, Somerville said, she's seen improvements—but she's also seen fewer young people get involved in community activism. That frustrating reality has kept her active longer than she ever imagined.
"It's a prayer I've been saying and talking," she said. "I wished I could just train someone to take my place. But people didn't want to do nothing. I'm always telling young people to wake up and see what's going on."
Not until Obama's campaign, Somerville said, did she notice a change. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren began asking to watch the news or read the newspaper. As they began to follow Obama's journey, their interest in politics, local news and world affairs grew. They started asking questions.
"I don't know if young people are active yet, but they are more in tune," Somerville said. "I'm hoping that energy will carry over and make them get involved."
The fire Obama reignited in younger generations is one reason Somerville is traveling to the capital. On her fixed income, Somerville can't really afford the trip. But a local political group welcomed her onto a bus to D.C. for free.
"If I don't do nothing but give him my blessing, I'll be satisfied," she said. "I'm just praying each day to get there."