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A Deaniac Looks Back, With Pride

The day after he declared he would no longer seek the Presidency, Howard Dean spent time at his campaign headquarters with staff and volunteers. He signed autographs on hats, photos, and even laptops. He doled out career advice to staffers who were leaving. He offered contact names in different parts of the country.

Dressed in blue jeans and a faded green shirt, Dean seemed relaxed - and grateful to the staff who worked so hard for him.

Staff like Courtney O'Donnell: in her late twenties, O'Donnell first drove up to Burlington, Vermont, in December of 2002. Last November, when Howard Dean seemed likely to be the nominee, O'Donnell spoke about when she first found the Dean headquarters. "They said, 'Great, how long are you here?'" about her offer to work for the campaign. "And I said, 'Well, 'til the end.'"

It turns out, O'Donnell will stay past the end. She began as a campaign volunteer - working for free for six weeks before becoming a paid member of the staff and Deputy Communications Director. With Friday being her last day on the payroll, O'Donnell will once again become an unpaid volunteer for Howard Dean - helping in the office for another six weeks (her lease in Burlington goes until April 1st).

"The middle," O'Donnell says of the bookends that will be two separate volunteer stints, "was the greatest experience of my life."

While many were writing Dean out of the race after his loss in New Hampshire, O'Donnell remained optimistic until the Wisconsin primary. Once the returns began to come in on Tuesday, she knew the end had come. "I've been crying a lot," she said. "It's sad to me that Governor Dean won't be the next President."

Tuesday night O'Donnell and many of her colleagues in Burlington headed to the Vermont Pub and Brewery. It was the scene of many a late night for the Dean staff early in the campaign because the original headquarters was located just upstairs. "It's sort of my first connection with Burlington was through that pub," O'Donnell said, chuckling.

Even after a night of preparation, Wednesday was not an easy day. "I think the moment in the speech where he said, you know, I'm no longer actively seeking the Presidency, is where it really - this whole thing became very real," she said with a hint of emotion still in her voice.

But as wild as emotions have been this week, O'Donnell remains inspired. "I think the greatest thing is it's not over," she said referring to Dean's plan to continue with a new organization. "I'm taking away hope and inspiration after a loss."

Back in November, O'Donnell cited Dean's February 21st speech to the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. - in which the former Vermont governor sharply criticized his own party - as a real turning point in the campaign.

Today, that speech is still one of O'Donnell's fondest memories. "That really was one of the moments I'll look back to as one of the most exciting and uplifting moments," she said. "We felt like we had a microphone."

Others high points for O'Donnell include her work on the Dean Sleepless Summer Tour and her work with Dean's wife, Judy. "She's just such a wonderful person," O'Donnell said of Dr. Steinberg. As for keepsakes - O'Donnell has campaign clothing, staff credentials, and a particularly treasured jug of maple syrup Dean gave her in the early days of the campaign.

Like so many of the Dean staff, O'Donnell is unsure of just what she'll do when she leaves Burlington. She will vote for and support the nominee of the Democratic Party, but because of her strong attachment to the Dean campaign, will not work on another Presidential campaign this year.

"At this point," she said, "I can't foresee working for another nominee formally."

But even though she won't sign on as staff with another Presidential candidate, it is also because of her commitment to Howard Dean that O'Donnell will stay in the political fight.

"It was Howard Dean that inspired me to come," she said. "Now he's inspired me to continue."

Eric Salzman rode, flew and walked every mile with Howard Dean, covering the campaign from start to finish for CBS News.

By Eric Salzman