Memories of Barack Obama
Birthers claim that no one from Obama's past has come forward saying they knew him. Where are the pictures? Where are the interviews with his friends, his teachers? Why does no one remember him growing up? At college? Where are his publications? Who was the best man at his wedding? It's as if he burst on the scene with no past.
Like everything else Birther, this meme is easily debunked.
Boston: Harvard University
Chicago: Building a Career
Hawaii: from Birth to Age 6
“I may be the only person left who specifically remembers his birth. His parents are gone, his grandmother is gone, the obstetrician who delivered him is gone,” said Nelson, referring to Dr. Rodney T. West, who died in February at the age of 98. Here’s the story: Nelson was having dinner at the Outrigger Canoe Club on Waikiki Beach with Dr. West, the father of her college friend, Jo-Anne. Making conversation, Nelson turned to Dr. West and said: ‘So, tell me something interesting that happened this week,’ she recalls.
His response: “Well, today, Stanley had a baby. Now that’s something to write home about.” The new mother was Stanley (later referred to by her middle name of Ann) Dunham, and the baby was Barack Hussein Obama. “I penned the name on a napkin, and I did write home about it,” said Nelson, knowing that her father, Stanley A. Czurles, director of the Art Education Department at Buffalo State College, would be interested in the “Stanley” connection.
She also remembers Dr. West mentioning that the baby’s father was the first black student at the University of Hawaii and how taken he was by the baby’s name.“I remember Dr. West saying ‘Barack Hussein Obama, now that’s a musical name,’” said Nelson..."
...Neil Abercrombie, then a graduate student in the sociology department, frequently would see young Obama around town with his grandfather Stanley, whom Obama called "Gramps." "Stanley loved that little boy," said Abercrombie, now a Democratic congressman from Hawaii. "In the absence of his father, there was not a kinder, more understanding man than Stanley Dunham. He was loving and generous."
Aimee Yatsushiro, a retired teacher from Kahului, served as a student teacher from September to December 1966 at Noelani Elementary School on Oahu. Her supervising teacher was Kazuko Sakai, the primary educator for about 25 students in a kindergarten class that included a boy named Barack "Barry" Obama. "He was a cute, likable, heavy build-child," Yatsushiro recalled. "I could visualize Barry smiling, dressed in his long-sleeved, white shirt tucked into his brown Bermuda shorts, and wearing laced shoes."
Katherine Nakamoto, also a retired teacher now living in Wailuku, coincidentally was assigned to the same kindergarten class, only this time from January to June of 1967. Nakamoto said she never used a nickname for the student. "We called him Barack. . . . He was very well mannered, respectful, confident and independent."
When Obama was in elementary school in Honolulu, Young recounted in a telephone phone interview, either his grandmother or grandfather (there's confusion over which one) brought him to Sunday school there for several years.
When Young reminded Obama at the memorial service, "his eyes lit up, and he turned to Michelle and said, 'Hey, that's right. This is where I went to Sunday school.'"
Young refers to Obama as Barry. "That's who he was here. No one here called him Barack." At the memorial service, the 70-year-old minister saw Obama as "a tall skinny kid."
OFFICIAL SOURCES: Government Officials
US Citizen and Immigration Services: FOIA Request Concerning Lolo Soetoro's Immigration file, page 46
Memorandum to file
A 14 128 294
Sept. 14, 1967
Pursuant to general inquiry from Central office regarding the status of the applicants’ spouses’ child by a former marriage.
The person in question is a united states citizen by virtue of his birth in Honolulu, Hawaii on Aug. 4, 1961. He is living with the applicants’ spouse in Honolulu, Hawaii. He [redacted with xxxx's] is considered the applicants stepchild, within the meaning of Sec. 101(b)(1)(B), of the act, by virtue of the marriage of the applicant to childs’ mother on March 15, 1965.
Indonesia: Ages 6 to 10
[Yunaldi's] hanging out with his brothers, just like he did when he was a kid. They all remember Obama. Soon I'm sitting on the floor with them, listening to stories of childhood adventures.... The neighborhood kids played soccer and staged swordfights with bamboo in the middle of the street. They also staged fistfights, pitting boys of similar size against each other. Johnny Askiar's voice is still filled with wonder as he recalls the feeling of hitting Obama's skull.
"Barry's head was really hard," he says. "My hand would hurt when I hit it. It was like iron, that head." A useful quality in a president, perhaps?
The Askiars speak about Obama with what feels like genuine fondness, but as kids they weren't above taking advantage of his status as an outsider. "Sometimes we'd say, 'Barry, do you want a chocolate?’ And we'd give him a chocolate. The next day we'd give him a chocolate again. The third time we'd give him terasi (fermented shrimp paste) wrapped up like chocolate," remembers Harmon Askiar. Obama didn't get mad, they say. He would laugh it off.
"He was built like a bull. So we'd get three kids together to fight him," recalled Yunaldi Askiar, 45, a former neighborhood friend. "But it was only playing."
He was the only foreign child in the neighborhood. He also was one of the only neighborhood children whose parents enrolled him in a new Catholic school in an area populated almost entirely by Betawis, the old tribal landowning Jakarta natives who were very traditional Muslims.
Zulfan Adi was one of the neighborhood kids who teased Obama most mercilessly. He remembers one day when young Obama, a hopelessly upbeat boy who seemed oblivious to the fact that the older kids didn't want him tagging along, followed a group of Adi's friends to a nearby swamp. "They held his hands and feet and said, `One, two, three,' and threw him in the swamp," recalled Adi, who still lives in the same house where he grew up. "Luckily he could swim. They only did it to Barry."
"We played marbles out on a dirt field. We could never cheat him. We did try but he always found out,'' says Zulfan Adi, 47, a freelance tourist guide who still lives down the street from Obama's old house in a lower-middle class neighborhood in South Jakarta. ``He used to say, `Kamu curang, kamu curang!''' (``You cheat, you cheat!'') Obama ``is resolute, that's the best way to describe him,'' Adi says. ``He never hesitated to stand up to defend his rights.''
Other Neighborhood People
"He was very disciplined because somehow at 5:30 p.m. he went home to study,'' says Adi's 86-year-old mother, Aisyah Zainal-Abidin. ``It was unusual.''
One woman, Djoemaiti, a 66-year-old grandmother, does remember the "fat little Barry. When he ran he looked like a duck."
Inside the old art deco house sits Obama's former landlord, Abu Bakar, a chain-smoking 78-year-old who saw no sign of the sparkling future for the nine-year-old he once taught table tennis. "I treated Obama as the son of the man who rented this house," Bakar told the Herald. "To me, he was just an ordinary boy. I did not give him much attention, of course, because I did not imagine he would become an important person."
His only abiding memory is of the morning Jenngo, Obama's pet poodle, escaped and failed to return, leaving Obama in tears.
Fransiskus Assisi School in Jakarta
Israella Darmawan, First Grade Teacher, Fransiskus Assisi School
Israella Darmawan is every inch a teacher, from her shiny cap of black hair to her sensible shoes. In an office at the Fransiskus Assisi School, she shows me an old register with an entry for Barry Soetoro, as Barack Obama was know then. Bu Is taught Obama in the first grade. She admits she doesn't remember all her students well, but Barry ... well, he stood out. "He really was different from the others. He was tall and heavy, black skin, curly hair."
Obama struggled with Indonesian, she says, but he was clearly a bright kid, especially at math. He had natural leadership qualities, she adds; other kids
followed him around during playtime. “Barack ran somewhere, they went. He ran somewhere else, they followed.”
[She] said she attempted to help him learn the Indonesian language by going over pronunciation and vowel sounds. He struggled greatly with the foreign language, she said, and with his studies as a result.
The teacher, who still lives in Obama's old neighborhood, remembers that he always sat in the back corner of her classroom. "His friends called him `Negro,'" Darmawan said. The term wasn't considered a slur at the time in Indonesia.
Still, all of his teachers at the Catholic school recognized leadership qualities in him. "He would be very helpful with friends. He'd pick them up if they fell down," Darmawan recalled. "He would protect the smaller ones."
Fermina Katarina Sinaga, now 67, has perhaps the most telling story. In an essay about what he wanted to be when he grew up, Obama "wrote he wanted to be president," Sinaga recalled. "He didn't say what country he wanted to be president of. But he wanted to make everybody happy."
Some of the Betawi children threw rocks at the open Catholic classrooms, remembered Cecilia Sugini Hananto, who taught Obama in 2nd grade.
The US President's former grade three teacher said that Mr Obama - who was known as "Barry" when he attended the Menteng One school in Jakarta - studied the Koran and went to classes on Islam, despite the objections of Ann Dunham, a Catholic. The teacher, Effendi, who taught at Menteng One for 29 years, remembers Mr Obama as a "fat, curly-haired, curious boy". The school had an international mix of pupils, including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.
Mr Obama attended classes on Islam while the Christians attended classes on Christianity, said Effendi. Barry, he said, was alone among the pupils in that he insisted on attending both. "His mother did not like him learning Islam, although his father was a Muslim. Sometimes she came to the school; she was angry with the religious teacher and said 'Why did you teach him the Koran?'" said Effendi. "But he kept going to the classes because he was interested in Islam. He would also join the other pupils for Muslim prayers."
When the teacher introduced 'Barry Soetoro' [Obama went by his stepfather's name at the time] to the class, he was very exotic. He was the only non-Indonesian; he was taller than all of us and chubby. He was accompanied by his white mum and his Indonesian stepfather, who was wearing a military outfit, and I remember thinking, that's strange, he looks half black, half white - maybe this is what a boy from Hawaii looks like. He wore Bermuda pants that extended below the knee, whereas our short pants were halfway down our thigh, and he wore T-shirts with stripes whereas ours were plain. He was the only left-handed student in class - it's not considered polite in Indonesia to be left-handed - so it was always amazing to see him writing with his left hand.
Barry was the only one in the class who had bread in his lunch box - the rest of us had traditional Indonesian snacks. There's one called kepan - sticky rice and desiccated coconut which you have to dip in this very strong chilli sauce. It's hot even for us. But Barry was very curious. He tried it and burnt his mouth, and he was saying: 'It's hot, it's hot.' You can see he was always open to learning something new.
He and his mum had been living in Indonesia since 1967. She worked for USAID, helping Indonesian women in the countryside to live in a more Western fashion. For the first two months, Barry was still adjusting. We had a singing class once a week and he wouldn't sing, probably because he was shy and worried that he might sing a word wrong. But after three months, he spoke Indonesian. He became one of us.
I remember one time he had a birthday and I went to his house with some classmates. Barry's house was down a mud track; to play football there, you had to put plastic bags on your feet. Near his house was a small canal - at that time it wasn't polluted - and they had small salamanders in it. Barry had chickens in his home field. It was totally normal for Jakarta in those days.
Me, Barry and Yanto used to play together every lunch break for two years and he was very loyal to our gang. If I said: 'Don't play with that boy, play with us', he'd do it. We'd try to finish our lunch as fast as we could and then we'd go to the fields and play: running, hide and seek, marbles and tak gebok, an Indonesian game of tag where you try to hit your fellow boys with a ball. One time, there was a naughty young boy who missed Barry with the ball so he took a small stone from the playing field and threw it and hit Barry's head, which started bleeding. I remember Barry just went quiet - his mum had taught him not to fight. He was one of those kids you could tell was brought up with a lot of love and affection and so he was never angry or nasty.
We loved playing so much we were always in on the third bell. Most of the girls had a problem with our gang because we were always very active and sweating, and sometimes we'd miss-throw and hit a girl. 'Oh, here they are again,' they'd say. 'Oh, you're sweating from the sun, you stink, go away.' So I had to teach Barry Indonesian swear words to say back to the girls.
At the time, my father and President Sukarno were the only people in the country with Cadillacs, and both were presents from my grandpa, who was the richest man in Indonesia. Grandpa bought me all the DC Comic books, and I was the only one who had them, so Barry and Yanto would borrow the books and copy pictures of Batman and Spider-Man out and ask me to judge which was better. Barry was always better than Yanto. Even Yanto always agreed with that. Barry had a great eye.
We came back from the summer vacation for fifth grade and Barry wasn't there. The teacher said he'd gone back to Hawaii. Our small gang was split up.
Somebody said in 2006: 'Look at Time magazine - your old friend is running for President.' I didn't recognise him. He was much slimmer. Then I saw a picture where he was laughing and I recognised him from the smile and the teeth.
Later on there were allegations that the school was a madrassa, and foreign journalists began hanging around. But the small mosque at the school today was added on in 2001. There was no mosque at the time and it wasn't even a particularly religious school.
It's very sad if a great nation like America wants to persecute Obama just because he was born from a Muslim dad and had a Muslim stepfather. I'm sure one of the reasons for the flexibility he has today is his experiences in Indonesia. At the school, there were half-Chinese and half-Dutch Indonesians, Javanese people, Ambonese, and there were Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Catholics. Barry is used to a mix.
Rully, who said that Obama was affectionate toward his friends, continued to reminisce about the good old days. “I remember that he was very straightforward. He didn’t like it if anyone cheated, whether playing marbles or petak gebok [Indonesian-style baseball].
“Barry was usually of a happy disposition, although sometimes children teased him and called him kuping pangsit [having ears shaped like fried dumplings]. He just laughed. I still remember he had an oval aluminum lunch box with him at school every day. Sometimes, he was brought to school on the back of a motorcycle if his mother had not yet gone off to work at the Indonesia-America Friendship Association [LIA].”
“Barry was very humble and sometimes just did what we asked him to do, such as eating Betawi glutinous rice or teasing the girls. We missed Barry when he had to leave in August 1971. Ask Ibu Karim [one of Obama’s teachers] or Pak Effendy [the class teacher] for their comments. They are witnesses who are still alive today.”
Widiyanto Hendro Cahyono, Classmate
Widiyanto [Hendro Cahyono], who was Obama’s seatmate in third grade — back when students had to share a seat and desk built for two — said he was surprised when the US ambassador to Indonesia, Cameron Hume, invited him and Rully to his Surapati residence a day before Obama’s inauguration in January 2009 for a traditional slamatan, a ceremony for special occasions.
“Rully was in Bali at the time so he couldn’t come to the residence, but a friend represented him,” Widiyanto said. “In return, we, as Obama’s former classmates, invited the ambassador to SDN Besuki. Look at this photo. These are Obama’s classmates.”
Both Rully and Widiyanto recall that it was the more active and sporty kids at SDN Besuki who mostly played with Obama, though he was easygoing and friendly with everyone. “From the first time that Barry was introduced, we wondered who he was — a chubby and taller-than-average kid with curly hair,” Rully said. “He was escorted by his father, who was in military uniform. Barry’s stepfather studied topography in Hawaii. Barry seemed like a very interesting kid and was all smiles.”
Widiyanto, who now runs his own express courier service company, said that Obama also joined the siaga , the Indonesian version of the US Cub Scouts. “Not very many people know this. Look at this photo, there’s Barry and me. President Obama has this photo too,” Widiyanto said, showing a never-before published photo of Obama as a boy wearing the distinctive siaga cap.
Widiyanto said that even back then, Obama was already extremely smart. He remembers that Obama was left-handed and good at drawing. “I remember he sketched the characters in the Marvel and DC comics that Rully brought to school. Rully’s grandfather was one of Indonesia’s richest men at the time so he had access to imported comics,” Widiyanto said.
Obama never became terribly close with the children of the new school -- this time a predominantly Muslim one--where he was enrolled. As he had at the old school, Obama sat in a back corner. He sketched decidedly American cartoon characters during class. "He liked drawing Spider-Man and Batman," said another friend, Widiyanto Hendro Cahyono...
"He was an average student, but very active," said Widianto Hendro Cahyono... who was in the same 3rd grade class as Obama at SDN Menteng elementary school in Jakarta. "He would play ball during recess until he was dripping with sweat. I never imagined he would become a great man."
Former student and [former principal] Ibu Karim's grandson, Bandung Winardijanto, remembers Obama as a "hyperactive junior who was daring, impish and could not stand still." "We called him curly eyelashes because he had long and curly eyelashes. He had a dark skin tone and his hair was curly but really soft."
Bandung said when Obama was made a senator last year he made the connection. "We knew him not by the name of Barack Obama but as Barry Soetoro." He said Barry had joined the Scouts and was known throughout the school. "He stood out among the other children. We use to tie him to the flagpole because he couldn't stand still. He would be angry for a while, but not long after we'd untie him and he would laugh and run around as usual," he said.
Bandung said Barry had once broken the school fence. "It was still made of wood not of concrete like today. He was running around and knocked down the fence. He got up and smiled and not long after started to run around again."
He said the next day Barry's stepfather turned up at the school with workmen. "He watched the workmen fix the fence and we called him little controller."
Bandung said Barry's parents often came to the school. "He used to take food from the vendors without paying. But, at the end of the week, his parents would come and pay for it."
Bandung said he had heard the rumor that Obama went to a radical Islamic school. He showed a picture of Obama with the Scout group. "The girls wore miniskirts. There's no way miniskirts would be allowed at a madrassa," he said. Another photo of teachers at the school shows both males and females wearing Western-style clothing. The women are also wearing miniskirts. Bandung said there was nothing to worry about in any case as Indonesian madrassa had been noted for teaching a moderate form of Islam. "I think the Americans are being a bit paranoid this time."
Ati Kisjanto, Classmate
"Barry liked to draw heroes." Then, one day about a year after he had arrived, Obama was gone. "Suddenly we asked, `Where's Barry?'" remembered Ati Kisjanto, 45. "And we were told he had already moved away."
Hawaii: Age 6 to High School Graduation
"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."
Hefty's daughter, Carolyn Whorff, a retired teacher who lives in Oakhurst, Calif., said she teared up to hear that Obama considered Mrs. Hefty his favorite teacher. Obama's name had come up as her mother was dying of cancer, before he went into politics, Whorff said. "I know he's going to be somebody,'" Hefty told her daughter. "You probably will hear about him. If you do, look him up."
Ten years after that memorable birth announcement, Nelson would hear the Obama name again. This time, the father, now a Kenyan government official, was coming to speak at the Punahou School in Honolulu where Nelson was teaching and where his 10-year-old son was a newly enrolled fifth-grader. “Dr. Obama had this lovely, attentive manner,” she said. “When he answered the children’s questions, he would do it as a story, which is the way they do it in Kenya. “His son, whom he hadn’t seen in eight years, seemed as fascinated as we all were,” said Nelson, who went on to be a high school principal, a harpist, a watercolor artist and poet.
"He was all boy... 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."
"[His grandparents] were always here with him and I remember. I remember Grandpa being kind of a funny guy," said Pal Eldridge, Obama's former math teacher. "I mean he was always … kind of a character, but you know, it was always good to be around him because he was always joking with people too."
"It's like fatherly pride that I sit here and see that one of my students, you know, is running for president of the United States," he said. "That's almost beyond belief that if something like this happens that, you know, I don't know if I could take it." Obama's communication skills continue to impress Eldridge. "I e-mail him and he writes, he e-mails me back," he said. "In three days, I got an e-mail in three days from Barry and I'm thinking, 'Geez, how many presidential candidates would write their, you know, former teacher back?"
Eric Kusunoki, Punahou High School Homeroom Teacher
Every morning, for four years, Barack Obama sat in Eric Kusunoki's homeroom class. "I said 'is Barrack Obama here' and he smiled and said 'oh just call me Barry' and it's been Barry ever since," he said. "It's almost unreal to think that someone who came to this school sat in these chairs and walked on this campus is now on that stage," he said.
He says in high school, the president-elect was always smiling and had a lot of charisma, traits he'll take to the White House. "It goes to show you never know, what a country what a country," he said.
[Obama's] keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention prompted Eric Kusunoki, Obama's homeroom teacher for four years, to pull out a dusty maroon scrapbook stored away since 1979. There among the clips and photos he had collected of all his students, Kusunoki found the teenage Obama _ carving pumpkins, volunteering for class activities, celebrating birthdays, even writing a nice goodbye note to his teacher.
"I knew he would do well," said Kusunoki, who has taught at Punahou for 33 years. "He was very gifted, and I knew he'd do great things. But this well? On this stage? I never expected that."
"I had a teacher who would say one of these days one of you may be president, when I started teaching I used to tell my students that too and now look here you are, maybe."
“He seemed to negotiate through school very well,” said Eric Kusunoki.
As a high school teacher of British, Biblical and Middle Eastern literature, Nelson taught Obama. “He wasn’t usually the first one to speak, but he was an attentive, active listener,” she said. “While the others might be bouncing off the surface, he came straight from the center. He picked up on the patterns of ideas and then he’d make a statement that moved the class to the focal point. He also had a lovely, engaging sense of humor,” Nelson said. “He was firm, but he wasn’t aggressive or in your face.”
During one class the question was posed “of what should we be most afraid,” drawing answers that included “death,” “hell,” “biological warfare,” “fear” and “isolation,” said Nelson. “I recall Barack sitting in the back of the room,” Nelson said, demonstrating a hands-behind-his- head pose and describing his lanky, outstretched legs. “When he pulled himself upright I thought ‘Bingo. Here we go,’ ” she said, expecting the discussion to move to a new level.
“And he said, ‘Words. Words are the power to be feared most. Every individual has an unmonitored arsenal and whether they are directed personally or internationally, words can be weapons of destruction.”
“He was just a normal boy,” said Bob Torrey, who taught Obama U.S. history and described him as a B student. “He was very popular with his classmates.” "He was all boy... 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."
Dean Ando, Classmate
Former classmate Dean Ando, who spent many hours on the basketball court with Obama and knew him since the fifth grade, says that Punahou was probably the best possible place for Obama in Hawaii. Though an exclusive school it was egalitarian in the sense that anyone with academic skills, regardless of ethnicity, would be respected for their accomplishments.
The number at Dunham's apartment in a nondescript Honolulu high rise has not changed in more than a quarter-century. It is the same one that a young Obama wrote in the yearbook of a petite black-haired beauty named Kelli Furushima, the object of his high school crush. She wistfully showed a reporter the love note Obama wrote in June 1979. Furushima paused, then sighed, pointing out how the potential president was prone to drawing a little Afro atop the "B" and the "O" on his signature. "Isn't that sweet?" she asked. "You can see how he was much more sensitive than the other guys, even back then."
Greg Orme, Classmate
"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."
Though Orme spent most afternoons with Obama and considered him one of his closest friends, he said Obama never brought up issues of race, never talked about feeling out of place at Punahou. "He never verbalized any of that," Orme said during a telephone interview from his home in Oregon. "He was a very provocative thinker. He would bring up worldly topics far beyond his years. But we never talked race."
"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."
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."
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?"
``My family moved to the States when I was 13 dad was a semi-retired architect and we lived in Honolulu and I went to the private Punahou Academy. I was in year 9 and Obama was a year ahead of me,'' Mr Snelling said.
``I have followed his career for 18 months with more than a modicum of interest since discovering that the Barry Obama I knew at school was the same Barack Obama that came from nowhere to tackle Hilary Clinton.''
Mr Snelling who was in the same class at the elite school of 3000 students as the actor Jack Nicholson's daughter knew Obama quite well, though the two weren't extremely close. ``We had lots of social interaction at school. He was quiet, very considered, super smart, well read, pretty engaged and was a good basketballer.''
“Not only did I go to high school with him, I sat at his table at the senior prom,” says [Leslie] Price, who graduated from Punahou a year after Obama. Price’s date to the prom was Darrell Gabriel, a basketball teammate who still shoots hoops with Obama when the now-President visits Hawaii. “You know, I can’t remember who Barry’s date was … but we all had a very nice time,” she says.
Price remembers Obama as a friendly and quiet student. “He was your average, quiet guy. He always had a smile on his face. He was very low key, non-controversial. He didn’t have any enemies. We had this building on campus that we called jock hall—he’d hang out there with his basketball team. The basketball team is going to the inauguration.”
At Punahou, a preparatory school that had few black students, Keith Kakugawa and Mr. Obama were close friends. They met when Mr. Obama was a freshman and Mr. Kakugawa, who is Japanese-Hawaiian, was a junior. Mr. Kakugawa remembered that the two often discussed wealth and class and that their disaffection would surface. He said race would come up in the conversations, usually when talking about white girls they thought about dating.
“We were dealing with acceptance and adaptation, and both had to do with the fact that we were not part of the moneyed elite,” Mr. Kakugawa said.
Mr. Kakugawa, who spent seven years in and out of prison for drug offenses beginning in 1996, said he pressured Mr. Obama into drinking beer. But Mr. Obama did not smoke marijuana during the two years they spent time together even though it was readily available, Mr. Kakugawa said, adding that he never knew Mr. Obama to have done cocaine. “As far as pot, booze or coke being a prevalent part of his life, I doubt it,” Mr. Kakugawa said. He had graduated, however, by the time Mr. Obama was in his junior and senior years, when he wrote that he most frequently used marijuana and cocaine “when you could afford it.”
The year was 1979 and Hawaii's Punahou High School basketball team was in the state finals, dominating, 32-11, at the half. Out on the court was No. 23, but long before Michael Jordan made that number famous, another player was standing out for other reasons. His name was Barry Obama. Sometimes called "Barry O'bomber" for his jump shot, that player is better known today as presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama. At least, that's how he's known everywhere else.
Obama's teammates Alan Lum and Dan Hale say those years with the kid they called "Barry" are some of their most memorable. The three friends were part of a basketball-obsessed group of students known as the "Rat-ballers." "I mean in that forum of a basketball or a pickup game or you know, as a teammate. … He just had something about him. He had this charismatic nature," Hale said.
Teachers and friends here say there's actually quite a lot about Obama that hasn't changed, right down to the way he holds himself. "The way he walks, yeah. Exactly the same," Lum said. "He could beat anybody in a debate and we wouldn't even realize we got beat because we'd end up agreeing with him," Hale said. "He would be very straight to the point and then he'd just have a way of just getting people to agree."
"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."
Alan Lum, Basketball Friend
"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."
...Lum, who later would coach the basketball team at Punahou as well as teach elementary school there, recalled Obama as always being the first to confront coaches when he felt they were not fairly allotting playing time. Obama wasn't shy about advocating for himself and his fellow backup players, Lum said. "He'd go right up to the coach during a game and say, `Coach, we're killing this team. Our second string should be playing more.'"
But it was on the court in the off-season that Obama seemed to be even happier. Back then, Punahou was a completely open campus, with several basketball courts where 20-something men from Honolulu would come in the late afternoon for what often turned into flashy, highly competitive pickup sessions. Many of the men were black. Orme would stay for the games.
"At the time, it was about basketball," said Orme, who has remained friends with Obama over the years and who plays basketball with him almost every Christmas when the two return to Hawaii to visit family. "But looking back now I can see he was seeking more from those guys than that. He was probably studying them and learning from them. He was a younger black man looking for guidance."
There were only five black kids out of 1,600. I used to get to school early; I'd see Barry and he'd say: 'Let's go shoot some hoops' and we'd play pick-up basketball together. He was a bit chubby but far better than me. Rik, Barry and myself jockeyed around and talked casually, and realised that here we are, intelligent black men, and we could have some good conversations.
We'd sit on the sidestep of the library, where a radio would be playing Marvin Gaye and the Eagles, and have these great conversations about life. I recorded one for an English assignment. Rik asked what we thought 'time' was, and Barry replied: 'Time is just a collection of human experiences combined so that they make a long, flowing stream of thought.'
He was 14 then, Rik was 16, I was 17, and Barry was definitely matching us. We talked about the future. Rik said he'd be a doctor, which he is; I was going to be a lawyer, which I'm not; and Barry was going to be a basketball player. Barry wrote in my year book: 'Go on and get that law degree, and I'm going to be a famous basketball player, and when I need to sue my team I'll call you.' Of course he went on to be the lawyer and not a shabby one either.
We talked about race but not, I thought, out of a deep sense of pain. The revolutionary anger started to die down in the Seventies. We weren't dealing with the harsh barriers, more with the rate of change, the progress we were making. Black culture was popular across the race spectrum. Jesse Jackson was a big public figure, everyone loved Stevie Wonder, the most popular sports star was Julius 'Doctor J' Ervin, the basketball genius. So we were talking about things like: would the girls date us black guys and would we see a black President in our lifetime? The answer to the first was yes and on the second our take was: there'll be progress, but we won't see it happen.
Decades later, I was in a bookstore in Boulder, Colorado, visiting my brother Keith and he picks this book Dreams From My Father out of the remainder bin and said: 'Look who wrote this.' It was Barry's memoir. Where he talks about his Punahou years, I was surprised by the agony he was feeling. But I'd been black all my life in a way that Barry sort of hadn't. People looked at him and saw a black man, but his own identity was that he was raised by and living with his white mother and these white grandparents. And maybe because of his white half, white people were willing to let their racist side out in front of him. So he had a lot to wrestle with, especially as a teenager. He was questioning things and following them towards agony and resolution.
In 2004 (at the Democratic convention), I told all my friends that an old friend of mine was making the speech. I've voted both sides before, but I have never heard a political speech so profound. What he was saying is what I believe - that's the America I want to live in. I'm extremely proud of him and I trust him. I know the man. I trust his intellect. I trust his judgment.
One of my favourite lines from that speech was something we used to talk about on the library step: 'We need to eradicate the slander that says a black kid with a book is acting white.' That was the kind of stuff we'd experienced; I had lived a lifetime of trying to do well academically and having black kids say: 'You're acting white.'
Punahou was a good school - my family had to save every penny to send me there, Obama scraped in on a scholarship. It was originally a school to educate missionaries' children and it still had that missionary spirit. One of the things that Punahou instilled in us is that you're given much in order to give much - you're here to go out and help the world.
Obama's coach, however, remembers one thing that has changed. Back then, Obama never went anywhere without his basketball, a ball given to him by his absent father. And he remembers Obama's drive, always pushing for more minutes on the court. He says that while Obama wasn't the best on the team, he might have worked the hardest. "I can remember him being here early and playing before school," said his coach, Chris McLachlin. "I remember him bouncing his ball, books in one hand, ball in the other hand. Shooting baskets during recess or at lunchtime. I remember him shooting baskets after school. I remember him being, probably, in the gym when he wasn't supposed to be. When there wasn't a teacher but he went there anyway, he just had to shoot."
His old coach remembers the last time he saw Obama in person a few years ago. He says he didn't want to bother the newly famous politician so he stayed off to the side. "Part way through his speech," McLachlin said, "he kind of caught my eye in the back of the chapel and said, 'Coach Mac, how you doing? You know I used to play basketball here you guys and I really wasn't as good as I thought I was. Was I coach?' and we sort of laughed about it." McLachlin continued. "He sort of admitted, you know, maybe I pushed the envelope a little bit too much on the minutes thing and I really wasn't as good as I thought I was and it was kind of, I thought, a very cogent remark."
"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."
California: Occidental College
Poems in the Spring 1982 issue of Occidental's former literary magazine Feast document the literary ambitions of alumnus and Presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Interviews with Occidental College faculty and former students:
OFFICIAL SOURCES: Occidental College
Barack Obama attended Occidental College from fall 1979 through spring 1981 and then transferred to Columbia University in New York. He is not a graduate of Occidental; however, the Occidental College Alumni Association bylaws state that anyone who completes at least eight courses of undergraduate work (or a year of graduate studies) is eligible for alumni status when their class graduates. From the Occidental College Web Site.
Her life and Obama's intersected at the Cooler, a campus snack shop.
The young woman from Rye, N.Y., loved her psychology courses but cared enough about photography to find mentors on the faculty who tutored her in independent study courses. With a blanket thrown over the couch she recalls as "a plaid horrible thing," the living room of the apartment she shared in a nondescript quadruplex near the campus in Eagle Rock became Jack's makeshift photo studio. Students from her circle of friends and acquaintances would pose for portraits that she would hand in as her weekly assignments.
That day a friend was telling her about a student named Barry she ought to photograph "because he's so cute." Moments later, the man himself walked in. He agreed to the shoot.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about the session, Jack says, although it impressed her that Obama had taken the initiative to bring the big, banded hat, a leather, bomber-style jacket with a fur collar and cigarettes as grist for her lens. "He obviously thought about how he wanted to have his picture taken." Obama shared at least one characteristic with the other students who sat for her portraits: "I think the thing that everybody was trying to portray the most was how cool they were."
“It's exciting to see someone I went to college with become President of the United States of America, especially someone who was so genuinely nice and sincere. I would be lying if I were to say I knew him well; but like so many of us in this country, he has had a profound impact on me. I feel honored to have known him and to have been the "keeper of the photos from such a long time ago".
"When he surfaced as this national figure, I can only remember him wearing O.P. shorts and flip-flops," said Simeon Heninger, who lived near Obama in the dorm.
"He wasn't talking about becoming the leader of the free world. "He was talking about, I felt, being a responsible citizen. A lot of us were like that at Oxy. You were kind of turned on to doing something with your life."
John Boyer, Dorm Neighbor
John Boyer, a skin cancer surgeon in Honolulu, fondly recalled evenings driving around L.A. and sharing pizza near campus. Boyer described himself as conservative politically and opposed to some of Obama's positions, but added, "What I admired about him then and now is that he is a very principled person in how he formulated his views."
“When he talked, it was an E. F. Hutton moment: people listened. He would point out the negatives of a policy and its consequences and illuminate the complexities of an issue the way others could not.” He added, “He has a great sense of humor and could defuse an argument.”
Boyer added, "Barry would kind of hang back, and there would be some less sophisticated people who would be yelling their point of view or argument. And Barry would kind of come in and just kind of part the waters. He would bring clarity that would address both sides of the argument and substantiate his point."
Ken Sulzer, Dorm neighbor
Dorm neighbor Ken Sulzer, now a lawyer in Century City, remembers Haines Hall's loud soundtrack of New Wave bands like the Flying Lizards. Hallway debates tackled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Carter's subsequent revival of draft registration.
Obama "did not impose his personality but certainly was well-respected among his peers and always had that great voice, even when he was 17, 18," Sulzer said.
In [Professor] Boesche's European politics class, Sulzer said he was impressed at how few notes Obama took. "Where I had five pages, Barry had probably a paragraph of the pithiest, tightest prose you'd ever see.... It was very short, very sweet. Obviously somebody almost Clintonesque in being able to sum a whole lot of concepts and place them into a succinct written style."
“Obama and I were walking back to the dorm and — listen, I was a year older and I thought I was a pretty smart guy — so I say, ‘I got an A, Barry, what’d you get?’ And he kind of wouldn’t tell me and just tried to change the subject in his low-key cool way. So I grabbed his paper out of his hand — and he’d gotten an A-plus. That’s when it hit me just how bright he was.”
Parsons said Obama was troubled, for example, by the way black students clung together. "I remember talking about the vicious circle between self-segregation and segregation imposed upon you," Parsons said. "I could tell that bothered him."
Carpenter recalled Obama as "a good bodysurfer" who had "a funky red car, a Fiat," and who also played intramurals - flag football, tennis and water polo. "He was an athletic guy. He was gifted in that regard," said Carpenter. He also remembered Obama being "super bright. He could get through the course work in a fraction of the time it took me."
“Barack was a bookworm,” says Hasan Chandoo ’81, a financial consultant in New York and Obama’s roommate during his sophomore year at Oxy. “He had to quit basketball to concentrate on his school work.” Chandoo notes that Obama first became politicized at Occidental, where the two became involved in the anti-apartheid movement and attended rallies for causes like Citizens in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). “He could have made a lot of money, become an investment banker. But it was clear that he was taken with politics. He was always reading a book like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and it took over his life.”
Vinai Thummalapally ... remembered him as a model of moderation — jogging in the morning, playing pickup basketball at the gym, hitting the books and socializing.
“If someone passed him a joint, he would take a drag. We’d smoke or have one extra beer, but he would not even do as much as other people on campus,” recounted Mr. Thummalapally, an Obama fund-raiser. “He was not even close to being a party animal.”
"It was so typical that he could just go and type out this amazing paper and do well after having partied all night, having drinks, beer or whatever we do at college," Barbara Thummalapally said in one interview. "He will always sort of be Barry to us...That was the name we knew him for years."
I met him in 1979, when we were freshmen at Occidental College (Oxy) in Los Angeles and our dorm rooms were directly opposite each other.
I came to college as a middle-class guy from Bethesda, Md., where I’d lived from fifth grade through high school. At Oxy, we attended some of the same social events and had late-night philosophical discussions related to our college reading or to current affairs. We attended rallies on campus where we were urged to “draft beer, not people,” and discussed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, apartheid in South Africa, the hostages in Iran and the Contras in Latin America. The crowd we hung out with included men, women, blacks, whites, Hispanics and international students. Barack listened carefully to all points of view and he was funny, smart, thoughtful and well-liked. It was easy to sit down with him and have a fun conversation.
His preppy visage was a liability on the basketball court. Obama had played forward on Punahou's 1979 state championship team but that held little currency in Los Angeles, where his new friends committed hard fouls in pickup games and ribbed him with quips such as "Welcome to LA," Goss recalled.
"We were giving him a lot of grief about being from Hawaii and being from Punahou, and he was giving it back," Goss said.
Morton, assistant track coach and sports information director at Dickinson State in Dickinson, N.D., says he remembers Obama from pickup games and recalls the president-elect as an "even-tempered, pretty impressive guy."
And one more thing. "It wasn't stylish to wear those itty-bitty socks back then," Morton says, "but I can remember him not wearing socks when he played -- at least that you could see. The rest of us had socks halfway up our legs. "I suppose he could have had socks underneath his high tops, but you never saw them. And that certainly wasn't the style."
Margot Mifflin, Classmate
The young man Mifflin remembers was "an unpretentious, down to earth, solidly middle-class guy who seemed somewhat more sophisticated than the average college student. He was slightly reserved and deliberate in a way that I sometimes thought betrayed an uncertainty."
"He was clearly shocked by the economic disparity he saw in Pakistan. He couldn't get over the sight of rural peasants bowing to the wealthy landowners they worked for as they passed," says Margot Mifflin, who makes a brief appearance in Obama's memoir.
“I was a year ahead of him. I invited him and his roommate Hasan Chandoo, who I started dating, to dinner, and they showed up looking crisp and fresh-faced. I'd go to student parties round their house; I remember dancing to 'Once in a Lifetime' by Talking Heads in a sea of people.
Barry was a focused, dedicated student and an earnest, sincere person, but he wasn't too serious to talk about the fun stuff. We'd hang out and talk about what was happening in class and who was dating whom. He goofed around with the rest of us. He was engaging and perhaps even charismatic, but I wasn't aware of him being a playboy. He was friends with women who were impressive feminists as well as people who were more socially focused. He straddled groups: the arts/literary crowd, which tended to stick together, and the political activist crowd, likewise. He belonged to both.
I studied in a creative writing class with him. I remember him submitting a poem called 'Pop' (since published in the New Yorker). It was a penetrating portrait of his grandfather, in which his grandfather asked him what he was going to do with his life.
I was also at the rally where he gave his first speech, an anti-apartheid rally at Occidental. He was hunched over the mike, it was too low for him. He was nervous and he was rushing a little. I recall him saying something like: 'Occidental should spend less time investing in South Africa and more time on multicultural education.' That was impressive because you think of multiculturalism as a Nineties phenomenon, and here he was in the early Eighties, thinking about the need for that in an educational sense.
It didn't occur to anyone this guy could become President. He certainly didn't go around saying anything that audacious or ambitious. He was a nose-to-the-grindstone, quiet worker, not the kind who would run around tooting his own horn, even though he was probably getting messages from his professors that he had serious talent. I think he was figuring out who he would be and when he left Occidental he took the steps to become that person. It's like Shakespeare's line: 'Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.' He was the guy who achieved greatness and it clearly took a lot of hard work to do that.
Jon K. Mitchell, Classmate
Jon K. Mitchell, who later played bass for country-swing band Asleep at the Wheel... remembers that Obama wore puka shell necklaces all the time, though they were not in style, and that "we let it slide because he spent a lot of time growing up in Hawaii."
Rebecca Rivera, Classmate
He was one of a few students who spoke at a campus divestment rally. Rebecca Rivera, then a member of a similar Hispanic students’ group, said: “He clearly understood our social responsibility and the way the college’s money was impacting the lives of black people in South Africa and preventing the country from progressing.” She added, “There was passion, absolutely, but not incoherent fieriness.”
"The audience was rapt when he spoke. I remember telling him after, 'You are a really good speaker - obviously you have a lot to say. I wish you would get more involved,' " Rivera recalled. She said Obama's response was essentially, "When it's important, I do get involved." The implication, she said, was that a lot of what passed for campus activism he considered mere "Mickey Mouse stuff."
“Well, I remember Barry being the most inquisitive person in class. I think we had two classes together in the Political Science Department. And he always had a question for everything that was brought up and he always liked to stay after the bell asking more and more questions. That was simply his nature.”
"We were going to a concert or an art festival. We were culture and music hounds," says Eric B. Moore, who photographed then-college freshman Barack Obama, looking inarguably cool in an aloha shirt as he stared down the distance. "That might have been one of his better shirts. He was always in T-shirts, shorts and thongs. I don't think he had a pair of closed-toe shoes."
Even back then, Moore says, the president-elect had a presence but wasn't pompous: "He was down to earth and affable and very warm. A casual guy." The two liked to listen to lots of jazz and musicians like Earth, Wind & Fire and Bob Marley -- a typical day-to-day soundtrack for a thoughtful teen during that time. "It's surreal to know that he is now the leader of the free world," says Moore, a senior vice president at Transwestern who will be attending the inauguration. "I just know him to be that great guy from college."
While he would sometimes attend parties held by black students and Latinos, Amiekoleh Usafi, a classmate who also spoke at the rally, recalled seeing him at parties put together by the political and artistic set.
Ms. Usafi, whose name at Occidental was Kim Kimbrew, said the most she saw Mr. Obama indulging in were cigarettes and beer. “I would never say that he was a druggie, and there were plenty there,” she said. “He was too cool for all that.”
President Richard Gilman nominated him for a Truman Scholarship during his sophomore year.
Roger Boesche, Professor of Politics
Roger Boesche, a professor of politics who's cited as Obama's intellectual mentor at Occidental, said the young man from Honolulu was "a very thoughtful student and a very curious student." Obama enrolled in two of Boesche's courses: a survey of American government and political thought from the Revolution through the civil rights movement and an advanced look at modern European political thought, which tackled such philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber.
"You didn't take my European Modern class without wanting to think about deep ideas," said Boesche. Teacher and student later lost touch until Obama, then an Illinois state senator, ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and Boesche launched a warm e-mail correspondence.
... [Professor] Boesche, has memories of him at a popular burger joint on campus. “He was always sitting there with students who were some of the most articulate and those concerned with issues like violence in Central America and having businesses divest from South Africa,” he said. “These were the kids most concerned with issues of social justice and who took classes and books seriously.”
Eric Newhall, a professor of American studies and American literature at Occidental, said Obama played with flair as a fiercely competitive guard in faculty-student pickup basketball games. “I remember him clearly as better as an offensive player than a defense player," he said. Now Newhall likes to lightheartedly brag that he "scored a good number of baskets against the senator of Illinois. I would love to say I scored against the president."
On a more serious note, Newhall said Obama already showed glimpses of social conscience and what his supporters describe as his charisma. "Clearly the guy had a presence," he said. "He came off as a serious, articulate, intelligent young guy," Newhall recalled. "I didn't say, 'Here is presidential timber,' but I said to myself, 'I like our student body because they are going out to do interesting things.' "
Anne Howells, Retired Professor of English
Anne Howells, a retired English professor, said she wrote Obama a recommendation for his Columbia transfer -- even though he sometimes turned in assignments late. "He wanted a bigger school and the experience of Manhattan," she said. "I thought it was a good move for him."
"He was so bright and wanted a wider urban experience."
"He was the kind of student that comes along and you say, 'Oh, I wish I had written that or thought of that,' " Howells said.
"I coached there, and he definitely played for me," says Zinn, a former Occidental athletic director and basketball coach. Obama, he says, was his starting small forward in the 1979-80 season.
"He was really athletic, ran good, jumped good," says Zinn, who left coaching about 20 years ago and is a partner in an Orange County sales agency. "He wasn't a great outside shooter. In basketball terminology, he was kind of a slasher. He was left-handed. He went left well, didn't go right that well.
"He had a nose for the ball, always came up with loose balls and rebounds inside. So if he got 10 points in a game, most of them were probably under the basket. He didn't hit jump shots from 15 feet or anything like that. He was a good defender, definitely a good athlete."
He estimates that Obama averaged about eight points, five or six rebounds and one or two assists a game. In 1980, Zinn was elevated to varsity coach and says he met with Obama "to tell him that I was interested in having him continue to play. I anticipated that he was going to contribute somewhere in the program throughout his career, if not as a starter than as a reserve."
But when Obama returned for his sophomore year, Zinn says, he told the coach he would no longer be playing basketball because he wanted to concentrate on academics. Before his junior year, Obama transferred to Columbia. But Zinn wasn't surprised he'd turned to loftier pursuits.
"You could tell he was a really intelligent guy, a pretty deep thinker," Zinn says. "Freshmen are goof-offs, in a lot of cases, but he was not like that.
New York: Columbia University
A spokesman for the university, Brian Connolly, confirmed that Mr. Obama spent two years at Columbia College and graduated in 1983 with a major in political science. He did not receive honors, Mr. Connolly said, though specific information on his grades is sealed. A program from the 1983 graduation ceremony lists him as a graduate.
School spokesman Robert Hornsby told WND that federal law limits the release of information about a student, but he could confirm that "Barack Obama applied for and was granted admission to Columbia College as a transfer student in 1981. He enrolled for the fall term of that year as a political science major. With the conclusion of the spring semester of 1983, Obama completed the requirements for a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and graduated with his class."
Columbia University Directory
Barack Obama '83 became the first College alumnus to be elected President of the United States. On November 4, Obama defeated his Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain P'07, ending a marathon campaign that saw Obama rise from a first-term senator to the nation's first African-American president.
Obama, who was profiled in Columbia College Today in January 2005 when he burst upon the national political scene, transferred to Columbia from Occidental prior to his junior year.
The presidential race that captivated the country for months held a special resonance on campus, as Barack Obama, CC ’83, became not only the first black person to win the office, but also the first Columbia College alumnus to do so.
Barack Obama ’83 -- The New Face of the Democratic Party? (Cover Story)
Obama says he was still goofing off for the first two years of college, which he spent at Occidental in Los Angeles. He continued to play basketball, which friends say he is still quite good at, and was involved in other organized activities. He also spent “a lot of time having fun.”
He changed course junior year when he transferred to Columbia. “I realized I wanted to be in a more vibrant, urban environment,” he says. As a transfer student, he didn’t receive housing, so lived off campus in various makeshift arrangements, such as living in one bedroom of a three-bedroom apartment, and renting a sixth-floor walk-up with slanting floors on the East Side, “just north of gentrification,” as he describes it.
As he pursued a political science degree, specializing in international relations, Obama says he was somewhat involved with the Black Students Organization and participated in anti-apartheid activities. “Mostly, my years at Columbia were an intense period of study,” he says. “When I transferred, I decided to buckle down and get serious. I spent a lot of time in the library. I didn’t socialize that much. I was like a monk.”
... according to information provided by the [National Student Clearinghouse] to a WND source, Obama attended from "09/1981" to "05/1983" and finished with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science.
Phil Boerner, Classmate and Roommate
I was Barack Obama ’83’s roommate at Columbia College in fall 1981.... We both transferred from Oxy to Columbia infall 1981. Barack had found an apartment on West 109th Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus, and suggested that I room with him. Our sublet was a third-story walk-up in a so-so neighborhood; the unit next door was burned out and vacant. The doorbell didn’t work; to be let in when I first arrived I had to yell up to Barack from the street. It was a railroad apartment: From the kitchen, you walked into Barack’s room, then my room, and lastly the living room. We didn’t have a television or computers. In that apartment we hosted a number of visitors, mostly friends from Oxy who stayed overnight when they were passing through town. Barack was very generous to these visitors. As a host and roommate, he sometimes did the shopping and cooked the chicken curry.
Barack has said that he spent a lot of time in the library while at Columbia and one reason
for this was that our apartment had irregular heat, and we didn’t enjoy hanging out there once the weather got cold. The radiators in our apartment were either stone cold, or, less often, blasted out such intense heat that we had to open the windows and let in freezing air just to cool things down. When the heat wasn’t on, we sometimes sat with sleeping bags or blankets wrapped around ourselves and read our school books. We also didn’t have regular hot water and sometimes used the Columbia gym for showers.
I remember often eating breakfast with Barack at Tom’s Restaurant on Broadway. Occasionally we went to The West End for beers. We enjoyed exploring museums such as the Guggenheim, the Met and the American Museum of Natural History, and browsing in bookstores such as the Strand and the Barnes & Noble opposite Columbia. We both liked taking long walks down Broadway on a Sunday afternoon, and listening to the silence of Central Park after a big snow. I also remember jogging the loop around Central Park with Barack.
One weekend I invited Barack to meet my grandparents, Elizabeth and William Lytton Payne ’46 GSAS, at their summer place in the Catskills, which we called “the farm.” I took Barack to meet some neighbors on the mountain; everyone seemed to like him pretty well, whether they were die-hard supporters of Ronald Reagan or extreme liberals. While at the farm, Barack joined the routines there, which typically included a few morning hours doing chores, such as clearing brush and sawing firewood.
After that first semester, we had to move. Barack tried to find an apartment for both of us, but was only able to find a studio for himself. I was able to house-sit in Brooklyn Heights. Barack and other friends came and visited me there a few times; we typically watched pro basketball or football on TV, or went out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. He was amused by my beginning banjo playing (I’m much better today!). Hanging out, we could get pretty emotional about sports, food and injustice. I remember one time when we were out walking he took the time to ask a homeless guy how he was doing, so even then he was concerned about others.
Through different living arrangements in Astoria, Queens; Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; and all over Manhattan, we stayed in touch and remained friends for the rest of our college years. He got to know my girlfriend from Arkansas, who is now my wife. Since I last saw him in 1985, we have exchanged a few letters and photos. He left for Chicago, and I eventually settled in Sacramento.
Barack wasn’t thinking about becoming President when he was in college; he wanted to be a writer. Barack is a good man — some might even call him a saint for tolerating my beginning banjo playing. Based on my six years of knowing him in college and the years immediately after, I can vouch that Barack is a man of character, and I trust him to do the right things when he is President.
According to Phil Boerner, Obama’s roommate, friend and fellow transfer, Obama transferred from Occidental to CU because: “we [Boerner and Obama] felt like we were in a groove and we wanted life to be more difficult…Obama used to tell his friends that he wanted to go somewhere where the weather was cold and miserable so that he would be forced to spend his days indoors reading.”
Obama took a a course on modern fiction with the late fabled Edward Said. He was underwhelmed. [Author David] Remnick writes, “And yet Said’s theoretical approach left Obama cold. ‘My whole thing, and Barack had a similar view, was that we would rather read Shakespeare’s plays than the criticism,’ Boerner said. ‘Said was more interested in the literary theory, which didn’t appeal to Barack or me.’ Obama referred to Said as a ‘flake.’”
Obama lived at 142 West 109th and Amsterdam with Boerner. Their monthly rent was $360. Remnick writes that, “the apartment’s charms included spotty heat, irregular hot water, and a railroad-flat layout. They adjusted, using the showers at the Columbia gym and camping out for long hours in Butler library.” Um, POTUS…they’re just like us!
Mr. Obama, who ultimately made Chicago, and now Washington, his home, enjoyed his New York years, Mr. Boerner recalls. Museums. Jogging in the park. Breakfasts at Tom’s on Broadway, not yet the celebrated hangout of Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza.
“I miss New York and the people in it,” he would write Mr. Boerner a few years after they graduated. “The subways, the feel of Manhattan streets, the view downtown from the Brooklyn Bridge.”
The apartment they shared, however, took some getting used to, Mr. Boerner recalled: 3E at 142 West 109th Street, a five-story building between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. The apartment had no interior doors, just archways, and Mr. Boerner had to walk through Mr. Obama’s room to reach his own. Hot water was scarce, and the two young men often showered at the Columbia gym. “It had a bathtub but no shower, just one of those plastic shower things that works ineffectively,’’ said Mr. Boerner...
When they lived together, Mr. Boerner said he thought Mr. Obama wanted to be a writer, not a politician.
New York was on the rebound when Mr. Obama arrived in New York. Ronald Reagan was president. Edward I. Koch was mayor and the city’s fiscal crisis had just started to abate. Life for Columbia students could be hard, however. Mr. Boerner recalls Mr. Obama wrapping himself in a green sleeping bag (seen in this photo Mr. Boerner took) to keep warm when they studied at home. They listened to reggae. Bob Marley. Peter Tosh. Talked philosophy. Theories of justice and John Rawls. Mr. Boerner recalled Mr. Obama joking that he would rather be spending his time pondering Lou Rawls, the singer.
Some nights Mr. Obama would whip up some chicken curry, a dish he learned from a Pakistani friend. Other meals were at Tom’s. “We would just go there for the breakfast special, two eggs over easy and toast,’’ said Mr. Boerner. “It was like $1.99, and we lived on a lot of bagels. They were, like, a quarter then, but they expanded in your stomach.’’
Though the two men stayed in touch, the housing arrangement ended that winter. Mr. Boerner thinks the leaseholder took the apartment back. Mr. Obama recalled in his memoir giving up the place “for lack of heat.’’
His letters to Mr. Boerner reflected the wistfulness of all expatriate New Yorkers. “I am still amazed when I think of what we put up with there,” he wrote Mr. Boerner in October 1986. “Still, I think you’ll find you miss it once you’ve been gone awhile.”
Sohale Siddiqi, Classmate and Roommate
The way Sohale Siddiqi remembers it, he and his old roommate were walking his pug Charlie on Broadway when a large, scary bum approached them, stomping on the ground near the dog's head.
This was in the 1980s, a time when New York was a fearful place beset by drugs and crime, when the street smart knew that the best way to handle the city's derelicts was to avoid them entirely. But Siddiqi was angry and he confronted the bum, who approached him menacingly.
Until his skinny, Ivy League-educated friend — Barack Obama — intervened.
He "stepped right in between. ... He planted his face firmly in the face of the guy. 'Hey, hey, hey.' And the guy backpedaled and we kept walking," Siddiqi recalls.
There was a time before Obama wore tailored suits — when his wardrobe consisted of $5 military-surplus khakis and used leather jackets, and he walked the streets of Manhattan for lack of bus fare. It was a time well before the political arena beckoned, when his friends thought he might become a writer or a lawyer, but certainly not the first black man with a real chance to become president of the United States.
When Obama arrived in New York, he already knew Siddiqi — a friend of [Occidental Classmates] Chandoo's and Hamid's from Karachi who had visited Los Angeles. Looking back, Siddiqi acknowledges that he and Obama were an odd couple. Siddiqi would mock Obama's idealism — he just wanted to make a lot of money and buy things, while Obama wanted to help the poor.
"At that age, I thought he was a saint and a square, and he took himself too seriously," Siddiqi said. "I would ask him why he was so serious. He was genuinely concerned with the plight of the poor. He'd give me lectures, which I found very boring. He must have found me very irritating."
Siddiqi offered the most expansive account of Obama as a young man.
"We were both very lost. We were both alienated, although he might not put it that way. He arrived disheveled and without a place to stay," said Siddiqi, who at the time worked as a waiter and as a salesman at a boutique.
In about 1982, Siddiqi and Obama got an apartment at a sixth-floor walkup on East 94th Street. Siddiqi managed to get the apartment thanks to subterfuge.
"We didn't have a chance in hell of getting this apartment unless we fabricated the lease application," Siddiqi said.
Siddiqi fudged his credentials, saying he had a high-paying job at a catering company, but Obama "wanted no part of it. He put down the truth."
While Obama has acknowledged using marijuana and cocaine during high school in Hawai'i, he writes in the memoir that he stopped using soon after his arrival in New York. His roommate had no such scruples.
But Siddiqi says that during their time together here, Obama always refused his offers of drugs.
Siddiqi says Obama was a follower of comedian-activist Dick Gregory's vegetarian diet. "I think self-deprivation was his schtick, denying himself pleasure, good food and all of that."
Siddiqi said his female friends thought Obama was "a hunk."
"We were always competing," he said. "You know how it is. You go to a bar and you try hitting on the girls. He had a lot more success. I wouldn't out-compete him in picking up girls, that's for sure."
Finally, their relationship started to fray. "I was partying all the time. I was disrupting his studies," Siddiqi said. Obama moved out.
Sohale Siddiqi, his real name, confirmed Mr. Obama’s account that he turned serious in New York and “stopped getting high.” ... What can be said with some certainty is that Mr. Obama lived off campus while at Columbia in 1981-83 and made few friends.
Michael J. Wolf, who took the seminar with him and went on to become president of MTV Networks, said: “He was very smart. He had a broad sense of international politics and international relations. It was a class with a lot of debate. He was a very, very active participant. I think he was truly distinctive from the other people in that class. He stood out.”
Obama lived off-campus after transferring from Occidental College in Los Angeles. His political science classmate, Michael Ackerman, CC ’84, recalled him as “almost chameleon-like, spy-like, slipped in and out. He tried to keep to himself.”
... I met Barack Obama at Columbia University when we were both students there in Spring 1983... I was a student at Columbia University 1981-1985.
Not only did I meet and talk with Barack Obama at some length, he wrote an essay that was published in The Sundial magazine on campus in 1983. Over the byline “Barack Obama” is a discussion of the anti-war groups on campus, including Students Against Militarism, a group I was a member of. (I was also a member of Young Americans for Freedom.)...
So, in summary, I was a student at Columbia, I met Barack Obama, I knew he was a student, and he and I talked, among other things, about my involvement in Students Against Militarism, my discomfort with its connection to Maoists and Stalinists on campus, and my favourite hat with political buttons all over it.
Cathie M. Currie, Graduate Student
"I knew [Obama] while he was [at Columbia]. He was remarkable then, but not in the way that most people think of as "remarkable." He was not trying to be noticed — he was studious and thoughtful. I said of him: "Whatever Barack decides to do for a career, he will be the best at it." When he left our group he was often on his way to a library."
"We played soccer on the lawn in front of Butler — I was usually the only woman playing and he treated me as equally as the others: if I was open, he sent the ball into the space in front of me, if I wasn’t open — he never made the silly passes that some men did to try to act like they were being egalitarian. The "into the space" passing was consistent — he was a superior strategist — and many of us had been college or semi-pro players. We always wanted him on our team."
"After games we had discussions — and we found that the same thoughtfulness of play was evident in his thinking about policy and social issues. He was a serious guy, but always had a ready laugh or twinkle in his eye."
"I was doing my Ph.D. — I assumed he was a fellow grad student. When I saw him on television at the Democratic Convention I was only surprised that I knew him, but entirely not surprised at his achievement."
"The people who are making these claims, Fox et al, do not understand Columbia. I recently told a father of a current student that he should visit the campus on a warm Friday night to see the school environment that is uniquely CU — it is the same as when I studied there: hundreds of us sitting on the library steps doing school work on laptops."
Currie isn't surprised that he was not widely-remembered by fellow Columbia classmates. "My sense of it was that he was keeping a low profile," Currie said.
He seemed like someone who had made a decision to prioritize his studies, she said. "We'd ask him to go out with us for beers after soccer," she said. "He seemed like he wanted to, but then he'd step back and say, 'Sorry, I'm going to the library.'"
In the spring of 1983, I was Barack Obama's professor at Columbia University. Barack, or Barry as he was known then, was a senior in my class on "The Novel and Ideology." I understand from reliable sources that he liked the class and was intrigued by what I was teaching.
Michael L. Baron, Professor of Political Science
One person who did remember Mr. Obama was Michael L. Baron, who taught a senior seminar on international politics and American policy. Mr. Baron, now president of an electronics company in Florida, said he was Mr. Obama’s adviser on the senior thesis for that course. Mr. Baron, who later wrote Mr. Obama a recommendation for Harvard Law School, gave him an A in the course.
Columbia was a hotbed for discussion of foreign policy, Mr. Baron said. The faculty included Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser, and Zalmay Khalilzad, now the American ambassador to the United Nations. Half of the eight students in the seminar were outstanding, and Mr. Obama was among them, Mr. Baron said.
In 1983, as a senior at Columbia in New York, Barack Obama enrolled in an intense, eight-student honors seminar called American Foreign Policy. His former professor, Michael Baron, recalled in an interview with NBC News that Obama easily aced the year-long class. But Baron says he never had any inkling that the gangly senior would scale such heights.
“You wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, he’s going to be secretary of state or president someday’,” Baron said. Obama was whip smart and “clearly one of the top one or two students in the class,” he said, but Obama’s seven classmates also could hold their own. “No real dolts in the class,” Baron remembered.
Twenty-five years later, Baron is president of a digital-media company in Florida and has hung up his professorial tweeds for good. He had saved Obama’s senior paper for years, and even hunted for it again this month in some boxes. But he said his search was fruitless, and he now thinks he tossed it out eight years ago during a move.
Baron described the paper as a “thesis” or “senior thesis” in several interviews, and said that Obama spent a year working on it. Baron recalls that the topic was nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union.
“My recollection is that the paper was an analysis of the evolution of the arms reduction negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States,” Baron said in an e-mail. “At that time, a hot topic in foreign policy circles was finding a way in which each country could safely reduce the large arsenal of nuclear weapons pointed at the other … For U.S. policy makers in both political parties, the aim was not disarmament, but achieving deep reductions in the Soviet nuclear arsenal and keeping a substantial and permanent American advantage. As I remember it, the paper was about those negotiations, their tactics and chances for success. Barack got an A.”
Baron said that, even if he could find a copy of the paper, it would likely disappoint Obama’s critics. “The course was not a polemical course, it was a course in decision making and how decisions got made,” he said. “None of the papers in the class were controversial.”
So would it provide any political ammunition today? “I don’t think it would at all,” Baron said. “It wasn’t a position paper; it was an analysis of decision-making.”
Baron acknowledges that he’s a big Obama supporter. He wrote a letter of recommendation for his former student when Obama applied to Harvard Law School. And, Federal Election Commission records show, the former professor has donated $1,250 to Obama’s presidential campaign.
“People assume he’s a novice,” said Michael L. Baron, who taught Mr. Obama in a Columbia seminar on international politics and American policy around the time he wrote the Sundial article. “He’s been thinking about these issues for a long time. It’s not like one of his advisers said, ‘Why don’t you throw this out?’ ”
NEW YORK: FIRST JOBS
Business International Corp, New York, NY
“Financing Foreign Operations [Yearbook]”, Business International Corp, New York, NY
“Business International Money Report”, Business International Corp, New York, NY
Barack Obama rarely talks about his year spent within the arcane sphere of global finance as a junior editor for Business International Corp., a publisher based in New York...unlike many of his peers, Obama did not spend his senior year making plans to attend graduate or professional school. Obama took charge of updating Financing Foreign Operations, a yearbook (annual subscription: $900) for which he edited manuscripts from correspondents in 40 countries. Obama also wrote for Business International Money Report, a newsletter covering currency issues and monetary policy.
The flagship publication had an activist bent, as an early champion of corporate social responsibility. A 1983 "call for action" encouraged multinational companies to push not only for lower corporate taxes in the countries in which they operated but also reduced weapons spending, as a means to promote "peace through greater global understanding and economic integration." But the publications for which Obama worked had far narrower interests. Written for bankers and financial executives, Business International's money report delivered practical, if often rarefied, advice for eluding foreign-exchange rules that often limited the ability of investors to efficiently control their assets.
Cathy Lazere, Supervisor
Cathy Lazere, his supervisor at Business International, described him as self-assured and bright. “He was very mature and more worldly than other people — on the surface kind of laid back, but kind of in control,” she said. “He had a good sense of himself, which I think a lot of kids at that age don’t.”
"I thought that he was going to be a novelist or something like that. He seemed like the type of person who was observing the world and taking it in."
Lou Celi, Vice President
“It was not working for General Foods or Chase Manhattan, that’s for sure,” said Louis Celi, a vice president at the company, which was later taken over by the Economist Intelligence Unit. “And it was not a consulting firm by any stretch of the imagination.”
"He had a good profile for Business International: bright, articulate, a good writer, and a knowledge of world issues and affairs," said Lou Celi, an editor of Obama's.
"He always seemed aloof, a little bit of a stray cat," added Celi.
After about a year at Business International, Obama found a job as a community organizer in Chicago. "I remember telling him he was making a big mistake," said Celi, who conducted Obama's exit interview. "He let me know he had bigger fish to fry."
"We definitely learned our ABCs of the financial markets," said Beth Noymer Levine. She was hired shortly before Obama and reported to the same boss. "I like to say Michelle Obama will be first lady, but I will always be first colleague."
Levine and Obama worked on a variety of newsletters for companies doing business overseas. The newsletters were aimed at senior executives and had arcane titles like "Financing Foreign Operations" or "Investing, Licensing, and Trading Conditions Abroad." Even in a company filled with smart people, Obama made an impression.
"I always say, he was very smooth and smart and together, and I was 23," Levine joked. "I felt like a human train wreck next to him."
Obama was even younger. But colleagues say he was mature beyond his years. True to its name, Business International had a global flavor. It was located near the United Nations, and many of the staffers, like Obama, had degrees in international relations rather than MBAs. It was the kind of place where a young person could take on a lot of responsibility, and you quickly learned to speak the language of the financial professionals for whom you were writing.
Most news accounts of Obama's career omit the New York chapter altogether. Levine says she understands that.
"I can see why CNN would skip over it," Levine said. "I mean, a lot of people had stops along the way in their careers that don't exactly fit the rest of the story. And maybe it was enough of an exposure for him to the corporate world to be like, 'OK, that's not exactly what I want.' "
"We were sort of thrown in. But when I reflect on it, we were all smart enough, and we had to learn by the seat of our pants," she said.
"None of us were hobnobbing with multinational corporate executives," said Susan Arterian Chang, a writer who worked alongside Obama. "They were boosters for multinationals and they thought globalism was the way we should be going," Chang said.
"He was all business; he didn't chat and gossip," said Chang.
...Still, a belief in the primacy of markets as engines for both the creation of wealth and social progress prevailed at the company - as became evident in an office debate between Obama and a colleague over whether to trade with South Africa during apartheid.
Obama "made some comment like there should be a boycott of any company doing business there," recalled William Millar, a writer for the money report. "I said he needed to realize that it's the non-South African companies who were hiring blacks and giving them positions of authority with decent pay. That's what accelerates change - not isolation."
Such discussions were rare for Obama, described by peers as a distant presence in the office: diligent about his work but rarely engaged by it, uninterested in after-work drinks with colleagues.
Dan Armstrong, Colleague
It was a small newsletter-publishing and research firm, with about 250 employees worldwide, that helped companies with foreign operations (they could be called multinationals) understand overseas markets, they said. Far from a bastion of corporate conformity, they said, it was informal and staffed by young people making modest wages. Employees called it “high school with ashtrays.”
"You were thrown in the deep end, and you learned a lot, and you had to pretend to be more of an expert than you were," said Dan Armstrong, who supervised one of the newsletters.
Armstrong said Obama's book exaggerates just how respectable Business International was, with its description of suits and ties and meetings with German bond traders. There was no dress code, Armstrong said. And there was nothing corporate about it.
"It was a company full of low-paid, hard-working, fun-loving young people," Armstrong said. "It wasn't part of a high-powered consulting or finance world. It was a little sweatshop."
Armstrong was shocked when Obama quit after a year, without even having another job lined up.
New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG)
Barack Obama’s environmental education began in January of 1984, a year after he graduated from Columbia University, when he took an $800-a-month position running a chapter of the Nader-inspired New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) on the campus of Harlem’s City College.
Obama spent hours with students in the trailer that served as the group's office just below 140th Street and Convent Avenue, giving lessons on how to organize rallies and letter-writing campaigns, how to speak to legislators and lobby for change in public policy.
Former colleagues recall a "fabulously intelligent" and confident young man who was intensely interested in the idea of creating political change from the ground up, an idea that would resurface years later in his meteoric political rise. He stood apart from some of the more radical students on campus, they said, and believed strongly in working within the system.
Obama worked that spring semester, from February through late May, on several NYPIRG projects, including the Straphangers Campaign.
VIDEO: Interviews with former colleagues http://www.nypirg.org/alumni/
Eileen Hershenov, Supervisor
When 23-year-old Barack Obama, then a recent Columbia University graduate, walked into the office of the New York Public Interest Research Group in 1985 after answering an ad for a job, his supervisor had a warning for him. "I told him he would make less than $10,000 a year," said Eileen Hershenov, who was the downstate campus coordinator for NYPIRG. "He laughed and told me that was a step up for him."
“You needed somebody — and here was where Barack was a star — who could make the case to students across the political spectrum,” said [Hershenov]. The job required winning over students on the political left, who would normally disdain a group inspired by Ralph Nader as insufficiently radical, as well as students on the right and those who were not active at all.
When he told Hershenov he was leaving, she literally got down on her knees and begged him to stay, she said. "I wanted him to stay because he could appeal to so many different people," Hershenov said. "People who were very interested in identity politics, people who were apolitical and people on the left and the right. He appealed to students across a political spectrum."
Obama's former supervisors recall hiring him to organize on the Harlem campus of the City University of New York as part of their campaign against the city's reliance on incinerators. "He was frighteningly coherent," said Chris Meyer, now a Consumer Union official, who interviewed him for the NYPIRG job. "I remember him interviewing with a presence and an assurance you just don't see in your average recent college grad."
"We were knee deep in solid waste," Meyer said. "We were one of the groups that was focusing on trying to change New York City's recycling policies and the way we were doing that had to do with trying to get NYC weened away from incineration and trying to look at waste alternatives."
"He was somebody that everybody took notice of," said Tom Wathen another former NYPIRG official now at the National Environmental Trust. "He did a very good job," said Wathen. "He revitalized the chapter, drew a lot of new students into it. Barack stood out because he had a certain amount of charisma that was kind of obvious."
Environmentalism was a core value at NYPIRG in the mid-80s, say former employees, and was, then as now, a perennial hot-button topic for campus activists. “You couldn’t have avoided it in this organization,” says Neal Rosenstein, who was working as a NYPIRG organizer at Stonybrook when Obama joined City College. “Working for NYPIRG was an education in and of itself - you were exposed to a huge amount of environmental issues.” But if Obama came to environmentalism almost by accident, he nonetheless showed a remarkable zeal for organizing students around the issue; over time, he developed such a reputation for his environmental campaign work that students would tease him that he should quit smoking cigarettes because it was “an environmental issue”. (“We all have flaws,” Obama would sigh as he puffed away.)
"He had a seriousness of purpose," recalled Diana Mitsu Klos, then a school organizer working out of the CCNY office. "His tenure was brief, but anyone who met him received a strong and lasting impression."
Alison Kelley, Colleague
He’d arrived at NYPIRG’s campus office—a cramped trailer parked on a patch of grass next to the science building—determined to change the world, but unclear about where to begin. “He didn’t seem unsure of himself, but he seemed unsure of where he belonged,” says Alison Kelley, who was a freshman at City College when Obama came to the campus. “You could tell he was driven, but he wasn’t sure what he was driven by.”
...[Kelly] remembers working with Obama to improve the City College subway station at 137th Street and Broadway, which was dirty and had poor lighting. She said he was among the early leaders in the successful push to get CUNY to divest itself of holdings in apartheid South Africa. He also led voter registration drives and campaigns to keep tuition down at CUNY.
"We had other organizers who were competent people, but he really stood out," Kelley said. "Everyone knew that he was going to do something remarkable."
Instead of focusing on environmental issues in isolation, Obama sought to join the dots, drawing students into energetic conversations about the way that air and water pollution was impacting on the health of the neighborhood’s low-income residents, or about the economic forces that underpinned the problems the students wanted to tackle. “I don’t think he’d have called himself an environmentalist per se,” says Kelley. “He used to say that it was too narrow to look at things that way, because if you do you can’t see the whole picture - and if you can’t see the whole picture, you can’t bring about real change.”
But it was clear that Obama quickly came to sense the limits of such approaches. “He talked about being frustrated, that he wasn’t moving fast enough,” recalls Kelley. “I don’t think he really saw the effect he was having, so he got antsy.” He read widely, and would hold forth about different theories and models of organizing, about better ways to bring change and to get the job done. In the end, colleagues say, Obama decided that he would not be able to effect real change simply through campus organizing. At the end of the semester... Obama quit his job and moved on.
Chicago: Starting a Career
Developing Communities Project
Obama Begins Work as a Community Organizer
Obama holds a meeting with citizens on the South Side of Chicago. His first foray into grass-roots politics began in 1985. He later credited his organizing experience with teaching him how to build diverse political coalitions.
Obama, Barack. "Why organize? Problems and promise in the inner city." Illinois Issues. August/September 1988: n. page. Print. <http://www.lib.niu.edu/1988/ii880840.html>.
Obama, Barack. "Why organize? Problems and promise in the inner city." After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois. Ed. Peg Knoepfle Illinois Issues, 1990. Print
Gerald Kellman, Program Organizer
“Barack had been very inspired by the civil-rights movement,” [Gerald] Kellman, the organizer who hired Obama, told
me recently. “I felt that he wanted to work in the civil-rights movement, but he was ten years too late, and this was the closest he could find to it at the time.” Obama, in his memoir, put it more simply when he said he went to Chicago to “organize black folks.”
But at first Kellman wasn’t sure Obama was right for the job. “My wife was Japanese-American,” Kellman recalled. “I showed her the résumé, with the background in Hawaii. The name’s Obama, so I asked, ‘Could this be Japanese?’ She said, ‘Sure, it could be.’” It was only when Kellman talked to Obama on the phone, and Obama “expressed interest in something African-American culturally,” that a relieved Kellman offered Obama the job.
"He had no trouble challenging power and challenging people on issues," Kellman says. "When it came to face-to-face situations, he valued civility a great deal. ... When it came to negotiating conflict, he was very good at that."
He liked hearing people's stories, and he liked writing them up, said Kellman and organizer Mike Kruglik, who also worked with Obama. Obama would turn in field reports that read like stories. At the time, he also was writing fiction in his free time and was weighing a future as a writer. "Understanding story narratives was very key," Kellman said. "He was already inclined to narratives, so he was very good at that."
“He either had to fail or succeed in order to leave” the job, said Jerry Kellman, who hired him. “And he succeeded pretty well.”
Loretta Augustine-Herron, Founding Member, Developing Communities Project
“Jerry introduces Barack, and Barack is so young, it’s like, ‘Oh my God,’” Loretta Augustine-Herron remembered. Obama was obviously smart, and he wanted to be an organizer, but he was, in fact, quite young (24) and he didn’t actually know much about the job. Despite those drawbacks, he seemed to work some sort of magic on the leaders. “He had a sensitivity I have never seen in anybody else to this day,” Augustine-Herron told me. “He understood.” ... “He didn’t have experience,” Augustine-Herron said. “But he had a sensitivity that allowed us to believe that he could do the job.” So Obama it was.
"This kid was so bright -- I shouldn't say kid, this man was so bright, but he didn't hit you over the head with it," recalls Loretta Augustine-Herron, a founding member of the communities project. "He explained things so nobody would be offended." The women nicknamed him "baby-face Obama." They chided him when he would eat just a spinach salad for lunch, laughed when he showed off his dance moves and joked about his seriousness.
Loretta Augustine-Herron recalled sitting at her kitchen table with Mr. Obama for several hours one afternoon at her home near a housing project. “He was not in a hurry, and I told him about what I did working with Girl Scouts and volunteering at school as a room mother and for block clubs in the neighborhood,” she said. “He wanted to know what made me tick, what my goals were and how things impacted the stability of my family.”
Ms. Augustine-Herron said that long afterward, Mr. Obama recalled details of their talk, like her oldest daughter’s service in the Air Force.
“If you’d asked his views on the environment he’d have spoken as progressively as anyone would have spoken at that time,” says Gregory Galluzzo, a veteran community organizer who trained Obama during his early years in Chicago. In fact, the bggest problem was beating the ideology out of Obama and making him focus on the task at hand. “I’d tell him, God damn it, I don’t want you to talk about environmentalism,” recalls Galluzzo, now director of the Gamaliel Foundation. “I want you to use your ears and not your mouth - get out there and find out what people want, and then we’ll decide what we’re going to do about it.”
... [A] meeting with the [Chicago Housing Authority] director ended in disaster, when angry residents shouted down the official and drove him from the meeting. Workmen did begin to seal off asbestos in the Altgeld complex, but progress stalled when the federal Housing and Urban Development agency denied the CHA’s request for funding for asbestos removal and basic repairs. “You can have the asbestos removed. Or you can have new plumbing and roofing where it’s needed. But you can’t have both,” a HUD official told Obama when he protested the decision. “These are the budget priorities coming out of Washington these days. I’m sorry.” For Obama, it was a lesson in the limits of grassroots activism: a sign that power - real power, power that could be used to effect change - lay further on and further up the ladder. “He could see that the impact wouldn't reach beyond the neighborhood,” former organizer John McKnight, who helped train Obama, told The New Republic earlier this year. “The change he was seeking was bigger.”
"He was a stranger but he made his way," says Mike Kruglik, who worked with Obama as an organizer. "He could see himself in other people."
Obama also was honing his writing skills, crafting vivid short stories inspired by his Chicago experiences. He showed them to fellow organizer Kruglik, who was impressed by how he had captured the feel of the streets. "I couldn't figure out how he had the time and energy to do it," he says.
“In his view, figuring out who you are and then getting that person to think about what he or she is going to do with it is the first step toward empowerment,” Daniel Lee, a fellow organizer, recalled. “He told me this was an extension of his own journey in struggling to find his identity.”
When veteran organizer Harold Lucas heard there was a new [community organizer], he figured he had better check him out. Lucas weaved through hundreds of people who had gathered at the Lilydale First Baptist Church to pressure government officials to clean polluted local water. Lucas sidled up to the skinny kid with big ears who was poring over a clipboard.
Lucas didn't say a word, but peered at the young man's clipboard. On it he saw speakers' names, stick-figure drawings, scripts of speeches and backup speakers and scripts in case people froze.
"He was literally orchestrating the meeting from a clipboard in the back of the room," said Lucas, 65, who now runs a preservation tourism business in a historic downtown area called Bronzeville. "I said to myself: Either I don't know nothing about community organizing, or this kid is brilliant."
As executive director of the Developing Communities Project, [Obama] had attempted to persuade the residents of Altgeld Gardens to become more involved in their community. Obama worked for the Developing Communities Project for four years.
"I'll never forget the amount of feeling he showed," recalled Johnnie Owens, who became the group's director when Obama left for law school in 1988. "He honestly evaluated his performance and made up his mind to do better."
Altgeld iGardens s the wildest place you had ever seen," said the Rev. Michael Evans, who helped run the Developing Communities Project, right after Obama left. "But Obama came out there and said, 'No, this is good. We can do something with this.' "
Rev. Alvin Love, Lilydale First Baptist Church
“Many of the parishes were in predominantly African-American communities, and I think all of the priests were non-African-American,” Rev. Alvin Love, head of the Lilydale First Baptist Church on 113th Street, told me. “Barack came to me and wanted to try to connect with the whole community.”
“He was interested in finding out what I thought could be done in the community about issues like public safety and employment, rather than giving me some long-winded spiel,” said the Rev. Alvin Love... “We were looking for ways to get involved, and Barack gave us a mechanism to do that.”
Mr. Obama asked him to attend a meeting with other ministers. “Fifteen churches were represented there, and we started making plans to mobilize around issues like drugs, violence and job training,” Mr. Love said.
Trying to construct a wide-ranging alliance of churches, Obama succeeded with Love and a few other ministers, but he was hampered by the fact that he didn’t go to church himself. “I said, ‘If you go to a pastor, and you ask him to come get involved in a community effort, and you say you have a group of churches, and that pastor asks you what church you belong to, and you say none — then it’s hard to get that pastor on board,’” Love recalled telling Obama. “He said, ‘I know, I understand, I’m working on it.’ He said, ‘I believe, I’m just waiting for the right spot, the right place, the right time.’”
I had decided to visit Barack as his guest in Chicago. I was nervous. I was very close to my dad and Barack was a piece of him that I hadn't known. What if we did not get along? Well, I wasn't disappointed. We just got into the car, his little car, and started talking and never stopped. It was a very intense 10 days together.
Barack was a community organizer. He was just a small person, a nobody, but he had the same intensity he has today. He was disturbed by the status quo and was working at the grassroots to see what was going wrong. I was very active in political awareness work in Germany and I saw that he had the same energy and passion to make a difference and to change people's lives.