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VP candidate is friend to Alexandria family

The first time Tenner and Roma Thompson met Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was on the road to the Anchorage airport.

It was 1995, and the Thompsons, of Alexandria, were flying home after having spent two weeks in Wasilla, Alaska, while visiting their son, Kirk Thompson.

Kirk had planned to see his parents off himself, but when he got tied up with work, Palin offered to help her friend out and give Roma and Tenner a lift.

"Then, of course, she took us out to lunch," Roma said. "She wasn't mayor [of Wasilla] then, either, just a mother with a bunch of kids. Whoever dreamed that we'd some day see her on the front page of the newspaper?"

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain shocked the political world last Friday - his 72nd birthday - when he named 44-year-old Sarah Palin as his running mate.

On Wednesday, Palin formally accepted her party's nomination at the Republican National Convention, held at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

She is the first woman in the Republican Party to ever be nominated for the vice presidency.

In her speech, the self described "hockey mom" touched on her faith, her family and her small-town roots, while also praising McCain and criticizing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

"Our family has the same ups and downs as any other," Palin said. "We have our joys and challenges."

Watching via webcast from Wasilla, Kirk said she did a great job.

"It was kind of emotional seeing her up there, and to see her family in the audience," he said. "With someone into the national spotlight, you hope that doesn't change them as a person. It was truly the Alaskan Sarah Palin talking up there."

Having served two terms as mayor of Wasilla - population roughly 6,700 - and two years as the state's first female governor, Palin was largely considered a dark horse candidate for the GOP veep spot, garnering little attention compared to other possible nominees, including Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.

"Once I got to work [that morning], it was pretty much the talk of the school," said Kirk, a high school librarian in Wasilla. "Everybody was huddled around the computer screens watching the live streaming video of the announcement ... pretty much excited and in shock, actually, because I don't think anybody anticipated she would be on that sort of list."

Though he hasn't been able to call his longtime friend yet to formally congratulate her, Kirk said he and Palin have exchanged brief e-mails.

"We said, 'Congratulations, and our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family,' " he said.

The Thompsons first became friends with Palin and her family through her parents, Chuck and Sally Heath.

"Her parents were the first Alaskans I met when I moved up here back in 1994," Kirk said. "From the moment I met them, they have become true lifelong friends. They took me under their wing and treated me as their own son."

It was the Heaths who got Kirk his first job as a cook at a hunting camp near Prudhoe Bay, after which he worked for Palin's brother's commercial fishing business.

Roma said the Heaths are amazing people.

"Chuck and Sally, they just do unbelievable things," she said.

From chasing birds off an airport runway on St. George Island, to trapping rats in the South Pacific, the Heaths have an adventurous spirit that is shared by their daughter.

"I think these really wonderful values that Sarah has really come from her parents, but especially her mom," Roma said. "[Sarah] is so down to earth.

"If you go to her house, you go to the kitchen and that's where you'll sit and visit, while she's stirring up something. There's nothing put-on about her."

Kirk said it was Palin's integrity and authenticity that pushed him to help her when she first campaigned for mayor, knocking on doors, handing out flyers, even designing her campaign buttons.

"She hasn't had a lot of money behind her, it's just that people are inspired by her, and they see her as a good leader and a genuine person," he said. "I'm not a political person, per se ... it was just a natural thing as a friend to help somebody out that you think is a great person."

Through all her success, Kirk said, neither Palin, nor her values have changed.

A few months after she was elected governor, her husband, Todd, and Kirk by chance shared the same flight from Anchorage to Juneau, Alaska's capital. When they arrived, Palin was at the airport, waiting to pick up Todd.

As they waited for their luggage at the baggage claim, Kirk said Palin was surrounded by a group of people while he and Todd chatted separately.

"I kind of looked at him sheepishly, and felt like a little fish in a big pond, like she's the governor, can I talk to her now?" Kirk said. "Todd looked at me, and said, 'Kirk, it's just Sarah.' He was right.

"She's a real person, it seems, at all times, no matter what she's doing."