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John Hickenlooper hangs with Barack Obama, Neil Diamond at the Kennedy Center Honors

During Tuesday night's broadcast of the 34th annual Kennedy Center Honors, the cameras frequently swept over the President's box occupied by Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as honorees Sonny Rollins, Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma -- and there, just to the president's right...Colorado governor John Hickenlooper?

Yes, and Hickenlooper was as surprised as everyone else to find himself and wife Helen Thorpe in such company. "During the entire Democratic National Convention, I never met with Obama," he says. "I never even shook his hand. I was too busy running the convention."

The invitation to the Kennedy Center Honors came via a call from the White House the week before the actual show, which was filmed on December 4. The couple hesitated -- they had other obligations, and they'd have to get a babysitter for Teddy. But then another call came, suggesting that perhaps they didn't understand: "We're asking you to sit in the President's box."

2011 Kennedy Center Honors. (L-R) Sonny Rollins, Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma, First Lady Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and Helen Thorpe.
2011 Kennedy Center Honors. (L-R) Sonny Rollins, Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma, First Lady Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and Helen Thorpe.
Photo by Carol Pratt

Why was Hickenlooper the only politician so honored? "I have no idea," Hickenlooper says, guessing that it could have something to do with his work first as mayor, then as governor, to promote Denver and Colorado as the cultural center of the Rocky Mountain West.

"We got to hang out with Neil Diamond, who was so grounded, so laid-back and charming, he won everyone over," recalls the governor. "So did Meryl Streep. They gave her like a six-minute standing ovation, and she leaned around Yo-Yo Ma and the First Lady, and mouthed the words 'thank you' to the President. I saw that moment of history."

And there was some personal history for Hickenlooper, too. His mother loved the musical My Fair Lady, and Hickenlooper remembers her playing the record that starred Barbara Cook as Eliza. For five years, the Wynkoop Brewing Co. was home to a jazz club, where Sonny Rollins played several times. And when Helen Thorpe was writing her book Just Like Us, he notes, she listened to all five CDs of Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello without any accompaniment.

No Colorado performer has ever been honored during the 34 years of the Kennedy Center Awards, but Hickenlooper took the opportunity to promote one of this state's hot exports, One Republic, which had headlined at the Christmas tree lighting the week before -- at the request of Obama's daughters. Hickenlooper says that when he asked Obama how his friend Ryan Tedder had done, "He looked at us, and said, 'They were good.' I downloaded some of their stuff.'"

Today, the president's listening to One Republic...maybe 25 years from now, a Coloradan will be honored at the Kennedy Center.

Here's the official White House description of the people who joined the honorees and the Obamas in the POTUS box at the Kennedy Center:

•Levis and Susan Cothran - Skip and Suzy Cothran are from Hampton, VA. They have been married for 37 years and have 2 adult sons. Skip is retired from Smithfield Farms as a Food Service Executive. Suzy is currently a Campus Minister at Christopher Newport University. Skip and Suzy provided housing for 3 Obama field organizers during the 2008 Virginia general election.

•Amber Chavarria - A member of the U.S. Marine Corps, Amber is stationed at Fort Belvoir, VA. She most recently deployed to Afghanistan for a year from March 2010-March 2011 with the First Marine Expeditionary Force.

•Vicente Chavarria - He served for 6 years on active duty (attained the rank of Marine Sergeant) and was deployed to Iraq from February-September 2004. The Chavarria's have two children, Alicia (5) and Vicente Jr (2).

•Governor John Hickenlooper and Ms. Helen Thorpe (spouse) - The Governor of Colorado, Hickenlooper was elected in November 2010. From 2003-2011, he served as the mayor Denver. After earning a master's in Geology from Wesleyan University, Hickenlooper moved to Colorado and began work as a geologist. After being laid off, Hickenlooper opened the Wynkoop Brewing Co. in the dilapidated warehouse district of downtown Denver. His brewpub helped launch the revitalization of downtown Denver. As mayor of Denver, he succeeded in improving the city's energy efficiency and lobbied successfully to have Denver host the 2008 Democratic Convention. Hickenlooper and Thorpe were married on January 26, 2002. They have a nine year old son Teddy.

First Lady Helen Thorpe

The First Lady of Colorado, Thorpe is also a distinguished writer and journalist. Thorpe was born in London, England, and grew up in Medford, New Jersey. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, Texas Monthly, and The Texas Observer. Thorpe has worked for The New York Observer; The New Yorker, where she wrote "Talk of the Town" stories; and Texas Monthly. In 2011, she published Just Like Us, a true account of four young Mexican women coming of age in Denver - two of whom have legal documentation, two of whom who don't.

What will John Hickenlooper do for an encore? See his bucket list of can't-miss Colorado activities for 2012 here.