Obama's remembers 'Toot' as calm, assured

November 4, 2008 3:34:08 AM PST
Barack Obama told millions watching him accept the Democratic nomination in Denver that his grandmother's influence on who he is and the way he views the world was substantial. "She's the one who taught me about hard work," he said in August. "She's the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me."

On Monday, it was tributes that were pouring in for Madelyn Payne Dunham, who died from cancer only a few days before seeing her grandson perhaps become the nation's first black president. She was 86.

"She's gone home," Obama said as tens of thousands of rowdy supporters at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte grew silent in an evening drizzle. "And she died peacefully in her sleep with my sister at her side. And so there is great joy as well as tears."

Those who knew Dunham described her as a calm, assured and directed woman who was instrumental in shaping Obama. He lived with her and his grandfather in their modest two-bedroom apartment from 1971 until 1979 - the same apartment where she died late Sunday.

The family is planning a small, private ceremony.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, said in an interview that Dunham "died as she lived. She was a woman of strength, great character, a solid anchor in that family."

Dunham, who took university classes but never earned a degree, nonetheless rose from a secretarial job at the Bank of Hawaii to become one of the state's first female bank vice presidents.

"Every morning, she woke up at 5 a.m. and changed from the frowsy muumuus she wore around the apartment into a tailored suit and high-heeled pumps," Obama wrote in his memoir "Dreams from My Father."

He has often mentioned "Toot" - his version of the Hawaiian word "tutu," or grandparent - as an example of a strong woman succeeding through intelligence and determination. Many of his speeches describe her working on a bomber assembly line during World War II.

The Kansas-born Dunham and her husband, Stanley, raised their grandson for several years in Honolulu while their daughter and her second husband lived overseas.

Obama learned of Dunham's death while he was campaigning in Jacksonville, Fla.

"So many of us were hoping and praying that his grandmother would have the opportunity to witness her grandson become our next president," said Hawaii state Rep. Marcus Oshiro, an Obama supporter. "What a bittersweet victory it will be for him."

Republican John McCain issued condolences. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to them as they remember and celebrate the life of someone who had such a profound impact in their lives," the statement by John and Cindy McCain said.

Last month, Obama took a break from campaigning and flew to Hawaii to be with Dunham as her health declined. She was the last of his relatives who had a hand in shepherding a would-be president.

When Obama was young, he and his grandmother toured the United States by Greyhound bus, stopping at the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park, Disneyland and Chicago, where Obama would years later settle.

It was an incident during his teenage years that became one of Obama's most vivid memories of his grandmother. She had been aggressively panhandled by a man and, for safety's sake, she wanted her husband to take her to work. When Obama asked why, his grandfather said she was bothered because the panhandler was black.

The words hit the biracial Obama "like a fist in my stomach," he wrote later. He was sure his grandparents loved him deeply. "And yet," he added, "I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears."

Obama referred to the incident again when he addressed race in a speech in March during a controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother," he said.

At the Honolulu Senior Citizens Club on Monday, three of Dunham's fellow bridge players lamented her passing. "She was a lovely lady," said Alice Young, 84, who last saw Dunham about two years ago.

Nahid Mabid, 78, said Dunham would accept no assistance when they last played together two years ago, even though she was confined to a wheelchair. "She would say she could manage herself. She didn't want help from anyone."

---

Associated Press writers Audrey McAvoy and Mark Niesse contributed to this report.


Load Comments