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On the Road: Wilmington, North Carolina

Hillary Stookey wouldn’t tell us her age. “60 and holding” and a big smile was all we got. But on her birthday, Hillary Stookey canvassed Wilmington, North Carolina for Barack Obama from 1:30 until 8:00 pm.

That’s three hours past the time the Republican office had closed.

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Stookey, a British citizen and Rhode Island resident, came down to North Carolina because her son, Ben Stookey, 28, lived nearby in South Carolina. She’d done the same in the primary.

Her “conservative” husband David had earlier called her from Rochester, New Hampshire — where he was also canvassing for Obama — to wish her a happy 60-something before he knocked his own first door of the day. Work demands meant his battleground state had to be closer to home. “You can do anything you want on your birthday,” Stookey recalled her husband’s words. She did.

“Single minded,” chuckled her son. Indeed, since she began canvassing in Lebanon, New Hampshire during the primary, Stookey has become something of a doorknocking addict. When she first walked into the Lebanon field office, “the energy was huge. The variety of people just blew me away.” People were coming all the time from different places. A woman from Florida, two brothers from Virginia, a young man from Iowa who showed up following Obama’s caucus win there. “His mom had had breast cancer. He drove all night from Iowa. I was astounded.”

When she started thinking of applying more elbow grease to the election, “I think it really occurred when he lost New Hampshire,” Stookey told us. “I have to do more.”

So she began making trips. South Carolina in the primary, where her son lived, was first. “I got back from South Carolina and said to my husband, ‘I really want to help.'” She even pointed out some of her gray hair, laughing that she purposely let it look gray to convince voters that some in Hillary Clinton’s demographic were indeed supporting the Senator from Illinois. “The minute the primary was over I got my hair done.”

From there, it was Pennsylvania, and phonebanking from home into North Carolina and Indiana. Wherever she went, Stookey collected new canvassing partners. The woman in South Carolina who’d driven from California to do two days and drove back. The older man with a pickup truck from West Virginia. A lawyer from Texas. “She was very quiet,” Stookey remembered. In Pennsylvania, she canvassed with Cynthia Johnson, a photographer for Bush 41 who told Stookey of the first time she met Bush’s son W. It was on an escalator, apparently, and the younger Bush wanted to move past. “Move it or lose it, lady,” was the introduction.

As for her British accent, had that led to any pushback? No, she said. “I’ve used that sometimes,” to show how important she believed this election to be.

“Every day has its challenges,” Stookey said of her now many days knocking doors. In Wilmington, numbers on doors were sometimes difficult to see, sometimes they weren’t concurrent or had randomly large gaps (“One house would be #19, and the next house on my list would be #423, but it was the next house”). She hadn’t yet tallied the data to count her knocks, but she had what appeared to be twenty pages of names and houses with data dutifully recorded.

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In her countless experiences at the doors, had she heard racist comments? She mentioned several incidents in New Hampshire at the doors, in South Carolina with one young white man, and in Indiana over the phones during the primary. Ugly comments included, “They’re n***ers. They all stick together.” And: “I won’t change. He’s black. You think I’m going to vote for a black man?”

Undeterred, the graceful Stookey emphasized that this was work anyone could do. “It’s the people you meet that you canvass with that makes this experience so exhilerating.”

“Every day, Barack Obama gets up and is brave,” she said. “I can be brave.”

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