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A Kid Called Barry
Barack Obama '79

By Carlyn Tani '69 

On a wintry February morning, U.S. Senator Barack Obama ’79 stood before the Illinois Old State Capitol in Springfield, site of Abraham Lincoln’s historic speech against slavery, to announce his candidacy for President of the United States. For many, Obama’s announcement highlighted a meteoric rise to prominence that began in 2004 with his electrifying keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. For others, it symbolized the remarkable ascendance of a kid they called Barry.

Barack Obama II was born on August 4, 1961 at Kapi‘olani Medical Center for Women and Children in Honolulu. His father was a Kenyan economist and his mother, a shy Kansas-born student named Ann Dunham. The couple had met while studying at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. When Barack was two years old, his father left to pursue a Ph.D. at Harvard, and the marriage collapsed. It would be eight years before the young boy would see his father again.

In the piercing memoir “Dreams From My Father,” Barack traces how his mother’s remarriage to fellow university student Lolo Soetoro took the family to Jakarta, Indonesia, where he recalls running through the streets with the children of farmers and servants, “hustling odd jobs, catching crickets, battling swift kites….” Concerned with the quality of education her son was receiving at the local schools, Ann Soetoro insisted on a daily regimen of early-morning drills. “Five days a week, she came into my room at four in the morning, force-fed me breakfast, and proceeded to teach me my English lessons for three hours before I left for school,” Obama writes. His mother’s passion for education led her to a painful decision to send Obama, then 10 years old, back to Hawai‘i to live with her parents so he might attend Punahou School. 

Dreams from a Father
In fall 1971, Obama walked into room 307,Mabel Hefty's fifth-grade class on the top floor of Castle Hall, where majestic, arched windows afforded a sweeping view of the elementary school grounds. Obama was one of a handful of new students that year, the standard entry point being fourth grade.

Class photos from that year show him as a round-cheeked child holding up a "Strike" sign for a history project. Pal Eldredge '64, Obama's math and science teacher that year, says: "Barry was a happy kid. He had a good sense of humor and was smiling all the time. He was a rascal too - he had a little spunk to him."

Obama's inner feelings were more complex. During a 2004 speech to Punahou students, he described his initial days at school: "One of the challenges for a 10-year-old boy coming to a new place is to figure out how you fit in. And it was a challenge for me, partly because I was one of the few African Americans in the school, partly because I was new and a lot of the students had been together since kindergarten."

Teacher Mabel Hefty played an important role in buffering the way for her new pupil. She had just completed a sabbatical teaching in Kenya and sought to nurture Obama's interest in his father's homeland. She shared her collection of Kenyan art with the students; she would sometimes pull Barry aside after class and tell him stories about her experiences in Kenya.

That December, Barack's father returned for a monthlong visit and was invited by Hefty to address the class. A commanding figure, the elder Obama spoke in mesmerizing terms of Luo tribal customs and the country's struggle against British colonial rule. "And he told us of Kenya's struggle to be free," Obama writes. " ... How many had been enslaved only because of the color of their skin, just as they had in America; but that Kenyans, like all of us in the room, longed to be free and develop themselves through hard work and sacrifice."

That message of common aspiration uniting people across race, geography, and history was one that would be powerfully evoked by the son three decades later. Years after returning to Kenya yet before his son could see him again, Barack Obama I died in a car crash.

An Amazing Ability
Obama soon entered the Academy at Punahou where he juggled new demands and choices: working a part-time job at the neighborhood Baskin-Robbins; singing with the chorale in freshman and sophomore years; playing basketball; and writing for the school literary magazine "Ka Wai Ola." Yearbook photos show Obama progressing from a sandaled, sunny ninth grader to a svelte "Saturday Night Fever"-styled teen sporting a wide-lapelled suit and stylish Afro.

"He was all boy," chuckles Bob Torrey, Obama's U.S. History teacher. "He was rascally and had lots of pizzazz - the kind of kid teachers love to have in their classes. He paid attention, but he was not what I would call an intellectual student."

With close friends outside the classroom, however, Obama showed another dimension. "He had a real intellectual bent, his mom being from the academic world," says classmate Greg Orme '79, now a building contractor, noting Ann Soetoro's Ph.D. in anthropology. "He had a worldly view. He would talk about people in Pakistan and was a lot more aware of Middle East politics than anybody I knew. He was following conflicts around the world and talked about it all the time. He read a lot on his own, too - books on philosophy. So we'd talk about world politics or existentialism." Orme paused then added with a laugh: "He would do most of the talking; I'd chime in."

Obama's voracious love of books, a shared family passion, surfaced during more private moments. Orme recalls that after the chums finished basketball practice in the evening, they would head back to Obama's grandparents' two-bedroom apartment. "It was Toot (Obama's grandmother) and Gramps in this small apartment and us two six-footers," Orme says. "We'd raid the refrigerator, and then go to his room. He'd put on his earphones; he liked to listen to Stevie Wonder and jazz, like Grover Washington. So he'd have the earphones on and read his books."

"He was so smart," says teammate Darin Maurer '79, who is now a minister. According to Maurer, one day Obama had a term paper due, so he went home over lunch, typed it out and handed the finished paper in that afternoon. "He wrote it on the typewriter," Maurer marvels, still impressed by Obama's seemingly effortless ability to formulate and organize complex ideas. "It was just amazing he could think that coherently and not rewrite the paper."

An Internal Struggle
Obama also possessed the ability to cross high school's complex social lines. "He was the kind of guy who could walk into a room and navigate the cliques," says basketball teammate Dan Hale '81, who now coaches Punahou basketball. "My biggest impression of him was the way he could communicate with people. You always felt confident around him, no matter what group you belonged to." His friends were an eclectic bunch. In a class bursting with athletic stars, Obama was not considered a big man on campus. According to Academy homeroom teacher Eric Kusunoki: "He was just a normal kid, like everyone else."

Except he wasn't quite like anyone else. Obama writes of those years: "I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant." In a 2004 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Obama says that, in the absence of role models, he fell into stereotypical black male behavior in high school: "not focusing on my books, finding respectability, playing a lot of sports ... . It wasn't until I reached college that I started recognizing that I had bought into a set of false assumptions about what it means to be black."

For the most part, Obama kept his inner tumult veiled from teachers and classmates. "I didn't know he was going through that," says former basketball teammate Alan Lum'80, a second-grade teacher at Punahou. "To always have had that smile on his face, to be a great teammate, and yet to be going through that internal struggle - I feel I lost an opportunity to connect with him." Lum, who keeps a well-thumbed copy of Obama's Time magazine cover story tacked to his classroom bulletin board, is reflective of the experience. "It's a good wake-up call for me and for any teacher that what you say, what you do, means a lot to a child at that age," he says. "You may not realize it, but it does."

Finding His Stride
Beyond the stereotypes, basketball was one place where questions of race didn't dominate. Obama threw himself into the game. "He was what I would call a ‘Basketball Jones,'" says Chris McLachlin '64 who coached the lanky teen during his senior year on the Varsity team. "That's a person who lives, eats, and sleeps with their basketball: they dribble it to school, they dribble it between classes, they shoot baskets on Middle Field during lunch. And Barry had that real love and passion for the game."

Bobby Titcomb '80, a commercial fisherman and airline employee, remembers his family driving to the Ke‘eaumoku Foodland after school, and "there would be Obama dribbling his ball, running down the sidewalk on Punahou Street to his apartment, passing the ball between his legs. I mean, he was into it."

Obama played back-up forward as the team's sole left-hander. He was regarded as a fierce competitor. "He had this double pump," says teammate Alan Lum. "He'd clutch the ball, jump and stay up in the air and pump the ball and shoot while you were coming down. So if you were smart, you'd jump two seconds after he did and maybe you'd have a chance."

While not a starter, Obama had presence. "He was a leader on the court," says Lum. "He would call people on it if they were doing something wrong. He would question coaches. A lot of things he did, he did for the right reason; a lot of questions he asked I was thinking in my mind, but he was strong and confident enough to ask them. I respected him for that."

Amid the rigors of competition, the team also found time for fun. They worshipped Dr. "J" Julius Erving, who revolutionized basketball with his dazzling dunks and aerial pyrotechnics; they went to see "Star Wars" at the Cinerama Theatre; they suited up to the driving beat of the Rolling Stones (Obama was in charge of pre-game music). Before Thurston Athletic complex was built on campus, the team held shooting practice at Blaisdell Arena and Darin Maurer remembers hauling the guys around in his brown Volkswagen van. They would stop by Mr. Burger at the corner of University and Dole for plate lunches and burgers while grooving to the sounds of Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, and Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors." "I still think of Barry when I hear Stevie Nicks today," Maurer laughs.

In Obama's senior year, the Varsity Basketball team overpowered Moanalua High School 60 - 28 to win the State championship title. Coach McLachlin describes the 1979 lineup as "one of my best teams ever," but Obama seemed to find his real stride elsewhere.

After practice ended on Chamberlain Field courts (site of the present day Sullivan parking lot) men from the surrounding community would get together for informal pickup games. The early evening matches fueled a different type of competition. "It was run and gun and it was a lot more free," Lum recalls. "And Barry was more free down there because he could be creative and he could do what he wanted. He excelled at it; he loved it."

Destined for Prominence
At the Neal Blaisdell Center in June, Obama graduated with 411 classmates from the Punahou Class of 1979. Orme recalls the two friends standing next to one another, barely able to see over the stacks of lei around their necks. At that moment, amid the jubilation, neither one could have imagined how differently their paths would unfold.

Like many children from Hawai‘i, Obama left the islands to absorb the experiences that would allow him to claim his full identity and purpose. "He already had that restlessness, he already had this sense of wanting to burst forth to his full potential," says half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng '88, who teaches U.S. history at Hawai‘i School for Girls. "And we always all thought that he was destined for some prominence. It's just the rest of the world would be slower to recognize it."

Obama's trajectory from then on is well-known: involvement in the anti-apartheid movement as an undergraduate student at Columbia University; three-and-a-half years as a community organizer in Chicago, working with black churches to improve conditions in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of the South Side; the first black president of Harvard Law Review; a return to Chicago where he organized a 1992 voter registration drive that put 100,000 new voters on the rolls; civil rights attorney; teacher of constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School; election to the Illinois State Senate in 1996 and U.S. Senate in 2004, becoming the only sitting black member of that institution.

Embraced by Punahou
In December 2004, a few weeks before he was sworn in to the U.S. Senate, Obama addressed a packed audience of Punahou students at Thurston Chapel. He highlighted the values he learned at Punahou as influential, and recalled a thought-provoking ethics class he once took. "What does it mean to live in a diverse society? What does it mean to treat people with respect and dignity?" he asked. "...What do we owe other people who are less fortunate than ourselves? What kinds of claims can we make in terms of creating the kind of society that benefits everybody, not just some people? And the fact that Punahou forces you to think about those things is critical."

He acknowledged the people at Punahou who had helped him during his youth, saying, "There was something about this place and this school that embraced me, gave me support, gave me encouragement and allowed me to grow and to prosper. I'm extraordinarily grateful to this school for the wonderful education that ... it gave me."

Expressing Punahou's pride, President James K. Scott '70 says, "Senator Obama is a manifestation of our hope for students - that they lead productive and fulfilled lives that allow them to improve the world." Obama attended Punahou with the help of financial aid, and Scott underscored the importance of that program. "Our hope is to reach out to students who possess high personal and academic promise, but who have low economic opportunity," Scott notes. "He embodies that aspiration."

Dreams from a Son
Each Christmas, Obama returns to Hawai‘i to visit his grandmother and spend time with family. "Hawai‘i gives him a space to think, and reflect and be a dad, a husband and a grandson," says Maya Soetoro-Ng. It also gives the far-flung clan an emotional center. "We have family all over the world," she explains. "Yet we have a sense of ‘ohana that allows us to cultivate a sense of family closeness in the communities where we happen to reside."

Besides family, Obama hooks up with his high-school buddies. He plays hoops and an occasional round of golf, downs his fill of sushi and poke, lays into a game of Scrabble and catches the waves at Sandy's. His pals say he hasn't changed. "He's honest, he's truthful and he's always encouraged the better things in you," says Bobby Titcomb. "And you always go back to those people who water your plant, who water your garden."

As Obama sets his sights on the U.S. Presidency, his family and close friends will be there to anchor and temper the inevitable thrust of ambition. They will be there to remind him of an earlier time before he became Barack.

Titcomb recalls when the two friends would take off by themselves into the Hawaiian forest. "We'd go hike up Peacock Flats and camp, just the two of us," he says. "We'd try to get away from everything. We'd basically live on nuts and whatever we could eat on the trail for two or three days. And we'd talk about how the world could be. We didn't say, Wouldn't it be great if we could drive this car or if I could own this house. It was, Don't you think the world should be more like this?"

Now, those elusive, distant dreams from Peacock Flats may be nearer than we imagine.  

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