BERLIN – If President Barack Obama needed an example of one “humbled by the task before us, and grateful for the trust you have bestowed,” words with which he led off his inaugural address on Tuesday, he had to look no further on that day than his presidential limousine driver, a Berlin native and Stephen Decatur High School graduate who has ascended from his small town roots to head up the U.S. Secret Service presidential protection division.
Long before the countless throng streamed into the nation’s capital on Tuesday, before the sun rose over the inspirational monuments on the crystal clear but bitter cold dawn of a new era in America, Berlin’s own Gregory Tate was preparing his charges for one of the most important details in his Secret Service career. Tate, a former football and basketball standout at Stephen Decatur High School over two decades ago, is the head of the Secret Service presidential protection division and the director of the agency’s transportation division.
Chief among his responsibilities on Tuesday, which were enormous, was making sure the president-elect was safely delivered to his appointed rounds, and on this historic day, he took the task of driving Obama and his family upon himself. Tate, who has been in the Secret Service for 15 years, said this week he was somewhat in awe with the events on Tuesday, and his small, but no less important, part in them.
“It was just overwhelming,” he said on Tuesday. “Just to think a local boy from a small town like Berlin could be in the center of such an important moment in history is pretty awe-inspiring. I’ve seen a lot and been around a lot during my time with the Secret Service, but on Tuesday, I truly had a sense of the history of the moment.”
How Tate ended up behind the wheel of the president’s limousine on Tuesday is a pretty remarkable story in itself. Obama is fond of saying “if you believe, you can achieve,” and Tate might be the perfect example of that.
Tate came from humble beginnings in Berlin, went through the local school system and graduated in 1981 from Decatur and went on the North Carolina Central University where he continued his football career and was named an All-American. Upon graduation from college, Tate spent one summer as a seasonal police officer in Ocean City before entering the Maryland State Police Academy in 1986.
Tate was a Maryland State Police trooper from 1986 to 1994 before being accepted into the U.S. Secret Service. He started his service as a special agent in the Baltimore district office, tracking credit card theft and investigating bank fraud and the like, duties handled by the Secret Service as an enforcement arm of the Treasury Department. Most think of the Secret Service as the body guards of the president and his family, and that is one of their most important duties, but the agency has many other responsibilities, although perhaps more mundane, and Tate spent his early years with the Secret Service in those occupations.
That didn’t last long, however. Tate was rather quickly appointed to assistant to the special agent in charge of the presidential protection division, a post he would take over later, and director of the division’s transportation unit. Chief among his duties are ensuring the safety of the president and his family in their travels, and on Tuesday, that meant making sure Obama, his wife Michelle and their two girls were safely delivered to the countless stops on their itinerary.
Although transporting presidents and their families was certainly not new to Tate, Tuesday’s events held special meaning for him. As an African-American himself, Tate understood the magnitude of the day and admitted feeling a little anxious on Tuesday.
“I played football for 15 years and I always remember having the same feeling,” he said. “It’s not fear, I was certainly not scared. It’s more like butterflies in my stomach. It’s the anticipation something big is going to happen. Later, when it was all over and everything had gone smoothly, it was a sense of pride of achievement.”
Tate’s day began early on Tuesday, around 4 a.m., when he prepared to pick up the president-elect and his family for their first official stop of the day, an early morning church service. However, Tate began preparing his crews for Inauguration Day in the months and weeks leading up to the historic event, often working 12-16-hour days going over the plans, and the routes, with precision.
“The preparation leading up to this was enormous,” he said. “We go over, and then go over again, every detail. It’s a big task, but this is what we do.”
From the church service, Tate drove the Obamas to the White House where they had a brief meeting with outgoing President George W. Bush and his family. Tate would soon drive both Obama and Bush and their families to the U.S. Capitol where the peaceful transition would be complete with the official swearing-in of the new president. For Tate, Tuesday marked the third presidential inauguration in which he participated, starting with Bush’s first. Tate was by Bush’s side when the president learned of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“It was an honor to serve President Bush and there were some tough days,” he said. “We protect the president and his immediate family, the vice president and his immediate family and the chiefs of staff among others. Really for us, we think in terms of protecting the office, not the individuals who happen to be holding the office at the time.”
Tate was close at hand on Tuesday as Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were officially sworn in, through the speeches and the pageantry he had a front row seat to history.
“I was right there through the whole thing,” he said. “We had a very important job to do, but that did not keep us from appreciating the importance of the occasion.”
From the official ceremonies at the Capitol, Tate drove the new president and his family for the rest of the day, although Obama did not always stay put in the car. For long stretches on his way down Pennsylvania Avenue, the president walked in front of the presidential car, which appeared to be a stretched Cadillac DTS with all the state-of-the-art security bells and whistles. Actually, despite its posh exteriors and interiors, the new Cadillac One, as its called, is based on a gigantic GMC TopKick truck platform and includes five-inch-thick bulletproof glass, ultra high strength ceramic armor and many other features Tate could not go into for security reasons.
“The car is awesome,” Tate said this week. “Although we had been training with it, we didn’t officially take delivery of it until Tuesday, when we drove Obama and Bush from the White House to the Capitol. We really believe in it.”
From the ceremonies at the Capitol, Tate drove the Obamas to the reviewing stand for the Inaugural Parade. He delivered his charges to the reviewing stand late in the afternoon on Tuesday and his official duties for the day ended around 6 p.m. Throughout the day, he was never more than a few feet from the new president, but he didn’t exactly strike up any conversations.
“We don’t speak unless spoken to,” he said. “In less formal situations, we’ll chit-chat with the president, but Tuesday was all business.”
At the end of the day, Tate could rest easy because he had successfully handled security for one of the most important days in the nation’s history. He said there were no major glitches, nor where there any serious breaches in security, despite executing minute details in the midst of the enormous crowds.
“Everything went smoothly,” he said. “Usually, I call it organized chaos, and that’s how Tuesday went.”
Tate’s duties with the new president did not end when he dropped the Obamas off at the reviewing stand on Tuesday. He was back with the president early Wednesday morning and will likely remain by his side in some capacity through his administration. With 15 years of service, Tate is eligible to retire in five years, but he said this week he is not exactly counting the days.
“This is a great job and I look forward to it everyday,” he said. “It can be stressful, like anything else, but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. Clearly I enjoy what I do and I’ve been to dozens of countries in six continents with the presidents. The only continent I haven’t been to is Antarctica, and I hope I don’t have to go there.”
As for going from small town Berlin to hobnobbing with U.S. presidents, Tate said it was a journey he wouldn’t trade for anything else and he thanked his home town and his school for preparing him for it.
“I really need to thank the Berlin community, my schools, my teachers,” he said. “I actually talked to [Stephen Decatur principal] Lou Taylor briefly during a break on Tuesday. A former first lady was fond of saying ‘it takes a village’ and that was true in my case. Berlin, and the Worcester County School System, were always there for me.”