Mattie Moore remembered childhood trips to the South, being relegated to separate drinking fountains and bathrooms for black people. She thought of trips to Saks Fifth Avenue with her mother, where salespeople would not let them touch dresses until they were purchased.
Each memory only made Tuesday's inauguration of President Barack Obama more special for the 70-year-old retired schoolteacher.
"This is the most spectacular day of my life. I wouldn't have missed it for the world," said Moore, who watched the inauguration at the Mellow Yellow restaurant in Obama's Hyde Park neighborhood. "If I had to crawl to this spot I would have."
From barber shops and restaurants to college halls and churches, Illinoisans paused to witness the inauguration of a Chicagoan as the nation's first black president.
Some erupted in cheers. Some began to cry. Others sat in silent reflection as they shared a moment most had only dreamed about.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" 65-year-old Laverne Mangum yelled as Obama took the oath of office, then repeated over and over: "President of the United States Barack Obama."
"I feel like I want to cry, that this is really happening," said Mangum, one of about 75 people who gathered at Mellow Yellow. "I think this is the most memorable day of my life, that I lived to see an African American president."
In East St. Louis, a mostly black city that's among the nation's poorest, school was canceled in honor of Obama's inauguration. In Chicago, schoolchildren watched the ceremony together. Passersby came to a standstill outside the Tribune Tower so they could watch on a huge outdoor screen. Others hosted house parties.
People of all ages, races, religions and political affiliations wanted to see for themselves, understanding the significance of Obama's inauguration, the racial struggles and triumphs that had laid his improbable path.
"A lot of people have shed blood, sweat and tears over the years, and this is definitely a sign of significant change," said Antoine Crowell, 39, a laid-off autoworker who watched the inauguration on a small office television at St. Luke AME Church in East St. Louis.
"I never would have thought this would have happened in my lifetime," said Crowell, who clapped and softly said, "Yes, yes," as Obama swore to uphold the Constitution.
St. Luke's pastor, the Rev. Derek Bastian, tempered his joy with a dose of reality: Obama is assuming his job while thousands are losing their homes and jobs and the U.S. is at war.
"I think he has a monumental task; the weight of the world is on his shoulder," Bastian said. "I don't know if he or any other human can deliver, but it sounds like he's asking us to help do the heavy lifting."
In Cairo, a small, struggling community in deep southern Illinois along the Ohio River, city clerk Lorrie Hesselrode said Obama's words acknowledging the nation's economic struggles and the need for sacrifice hit home.
Julie Treumann of Chicago worried people are placing unrealistic expectations on Obama. The corporate attorney watched the inauguration with 10 others, including her 4-month-old daughter, Ingrid, at a Chicago condominium.
"He's just a man," she said. "He's just a president. No one can live up to what they've put on him. Even when the crowd started chanting O-bam-a, he was taking the oath of office and he's still the rock star. That's the worry. How can he live up to this? He's going to do a great job, but he's mortal, too."
Nothing could dampen the enthusiasm at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield, where about 85 employees, volunteers and guests watched the inauguration on a projection screen. Obama announced his candidacy for president in February 2007 at the Old State Capitol just across the street.
"If we couldn't be in Washington, what more fitting place to be than Springfield where it all began," said Greg Tullis, 49, who drove 125 miles from Streator to watch the inauguration.
Watching a large projection screen, the group chanted "yes we can" and rose to their feet when Obama took the stage.
"I've been so hungry for a president like John F. Kennedy, said Jason Kueper, 22, of Normal. "Barack speaks to my generation the way JFK spoke to my dad's."
In Urbana, Samarth Bhaskar watched the ceremony at the Asian American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois -- just four months after he and his parents took the oath to become American citizens.
Noting Obama's childhood years in Indonesia and his foreign-born father, the 20-year-old college junior said he was watching a real American success story.
"It really just gives you hope to crack that ceiling," said Bhaskar, who was born in India.
At the University of Illinois at Springfield, psychology student Candace Thembeka said she was proud of Obama not because he is the first black president, "but because of what he stands for. He wants the nation to be united, not separated."
That, as much as anything, is what Obama represents, many said.
Back at another crowded restaurant in Chicago's Hyde Park, electrician Reginald Hopkins, 39, remembered when he was a boy and a group of white teens in a truck rode by him, throwing watermelon and spewing racial slurs.
"To come from that point," he said, looking at his 11- and 4-year-old daughters, "and now you say to them, you can do anything if you try."
MSNBC.com: Sharing the Inauguration In Spirit: