In 1982, a government employee named Lenny Skutnick leaped into the Potomac River to rescue passengers of a downed airliner — and for his bravery was invited to attend Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address as a guest of the President and First Lady. Since then, it has become a tradition for the White House to invite a group of heroes, ordinary citizens and VIPs to grace the gallery as the President gives his annual speech. This year, dozens of guests will flank Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden in their cordoned-off section high atop the House of Representatives chamber—students and health care workers, CEOs and first responders. This year sees a number of invitees representing the fields of gun control and technological innovation — two themes expected form a major part of Obama’s speech. Keep an eye on these guests sitting with Michelle and Jill this evening:
Tim Cook – The Apple CEO will be the highest-profile guest to join the First Lady. While it’s been a turbulent few weeks for Apple stock, Cook no doubt won fans in the Administration for his announcement late last year that the company would begin constructing some of its Macintosh computers in the U.S. He’s also the second Apple guest in a row at an Obama State of the Union: last year, Laurene Powell Jobs — widow of the company’s founder Steve Jobs — joined the First Lady for the address some six months after her husband’s death.
Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel A. Pendleton Sr. — The parents of slain Chicago teenager Hadiya Pendleton, who was gunned down on the city’s South Side just days after she performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 21. Michelle Obama attended the 15-year-old’s funeral last weekend along with White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, all of whom grew up or lived in the tumultuous section of the Windy City. Obama is expected to make gun violence a significant part of his remarks.
Menchu de Luna Sanchez — A registered nurse who was on duty at New York University’s Langone Medical Center when Superstorm Sandy slammed the city, Sanchez organized and executed a plan to rescue and relocate at-risk babies in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit when a blown transformer cut the hospital’s power. Sanchez, a native of the Philippines currently living in northern New Jersey, organized nurses to carry the fragile babies down eight flights of stairs, lighting the way with their cell phones.
Bobak Ferdowsi — He was the man guiding the way for NASA’s Curiosity rover as it descended to the surface of Mars last August, so it only made sense that Ferdowsi’s hair shone bright. The flight director — better known to the world as “Mohawk Guy” — became famous for his trademark red-and-blue dyed haircut with stars carved into it. We’re betting he’s easy to spot.
Lieutenant Brian Murphy — The first police officer to arrive at the scene of August’s mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc. Murphy, 51, was critically wounded in the incident — taking fifteen bullets to his neck and body — although his life was saved by his bulletproof vest. Still, when backup arrived, the wounded Oak Creek officer ordered them to go into the temple to save other victims instead of himself. The 21-year veteran remains on leave from the force as he continues to recover.
Kaitlin Roig — A first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook elementary school who was hailed as a hero for moving quickly to protect her students as a gunman stalked through the school in December. Roig, who has taught at Sandy Hook for six years, saved her class of 15 six-year-olds by barricading them in the tiny class bathroom, even refusing to open the door when police arrived.
Desiline Victor — The 102-year-old Floridian is being hailed as a champion voter after heading to her local polling place twice and waiting more than three hours in line to cast her vote. The North Miami resident, a naturalized Cuban citizen, was reportedly cheered by her fellow voters as she emerged from the polling place, her “I Voted” sticker firmly in hand. “I wanted to vote for my guy, my son, President Obama,” she told the Miami Herald.
Others attending with Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden tonight include:
Sergeant Sheena Adams, the team advisor and lead instructor for the Marine Corps’ Female Engagement Team.
Alan Aleman, a Mexico City-born college student currently studying at the College of Southern Nevada and an early beneficiary of Obama’s deferred action for undocumented youth program, which allows young undocumented immigrants the right to pursue their education in the states.
Jack Andraka, the 16-year-old winner of the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, who inventing a method to detect pancreatic cancer 28 times as fast and 28 times as cost-effective as existing methods.
Susan Bumgarner, a preschool teacher from Norman, Okla., who has taught early education classes for more than 20 years.
Deb Carey, owner of the New Glarus Brewing Company in Wisconsin, the state’s top-performing microbrewery and a model for the state’s small-business owners.
Sergeant Carlos Evans, a U.S. Marine who lost both his legs and his left hand in Afghanistan while on his fourth tour of duty. Evans is also a beneficiary of the Coming Home Project, an initiative meant to help returning veterans and wounded warriors.
Bradley Henning, a machinist with Atlas Machine and Supply in Louisville, Ky., and a graduate of one of the best vocational high school programs in the state.
Tracey Hepner, the co-founder of the Military Partners and Families Coalition, which provides support to LGBT members of the military and their partners.
Peter Hudson, the co-founder and CEO of iTriage, a company that creates efficiencies within the healthcare technology world, including a smartphone app that helps patients find the nearest doctor.
John Kitzhaber, the Democratic governor of Oregon and a champion of health care reform.
Marie Lopez Rogers, the first Latina mayor of Avondale, Ariz., a small city adjacent to Phoenix.
Amanda E. McMillan, a pay discrimination victim who successfully sued her former employer, Forrest City Grocery, for sex discrimination.
Lee Maxwell, an Iowa native who started a wind technician training program to bring jobs and wind-turbine power to states across the U.S.
Lisa Richards, a single mom who participated in the #My2K Twitter campaign hosted by the Obama campaign explaining how paying $2,200 more in taxes would affect middle-class families.
Abby Schanfield, a 21-year-old beneficiary of the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, which extends healthcare coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.
Haile Thomas, a 12-year-old from Tucson who is enacting the practices of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign at her school.